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Family stories

The photograph shows David’s family in the 1930s, including those we never talked about later.
David Bouchier
The photograph shows David’s family in the 1930s, including those we never talked about later.

Family reunions may bring back an awful lot of memories, or a lot of awful memories.

When we get together with the family, we can’t avoid the past. It is there, all around the Thanksgiving table, brought back to life by those oh-so-familiar voices and characters, and by performing our long-discarded family roles. Like the taste of Marcel Proust’s famous Madeleine, a spoonful of cranberry sauce may bring back every vivid detail of our past life.

The impulse to tell our stories is very strong, especially when we have a captive audience. Most memoirs are essentially family stories, as are many works of fiction. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. David Sedaris, for example, has built a whole career out of his peculiar relatives. But most families don’t need a professional storyteller. They are more than satisfied with their own familiar tales, provided they don’t have to hear them too often.

We live in a world of stories, imperfect memories, anecdotes, dreams and fantasies, and we would find it hard to live without them. We are all fabulists around the dinner table, re-inventors of our own lives — and why not? Narrative is as natural to us as language itself, and every culture is a storytelling culture.

All stories improve with time. A classic example is Homer’s Odyssey, that describes adventures and unfortunate family life of Odysseus, but that was written hundreds of years after the events it describes. Anyone can see that these tales are not strictly true, but they are certainly more entertaining than the truth. The farther we delve into the past the more elaborate and dramatic our stories can become, especially when travel is involved. An account of a minor dispute with a carpet seller in a market in Marrakech can easily turn into a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.

When we get together during the holidays these stories are part of the entertainment. They are usually familiar narratives, beginning with the words “Do up you remember?” and the assumption that nobody does remember very clearly. In my family, for example, somebody always tells a version of the story of how my father and uncle tried to paper the ceiling one Christmas and ended up practically destroying the living room. We tell these stories over and over again, and they get better and better.

But they rarely have any shock value, because the most scandalous episodes have been edited out. When I was younger, I would ask awkward questions about these ‘forgotten’ events and people. Now I’m old enough to know the value of secrets and silence.

Most families have at least one senior member who has forgotten nothing and has never learned the discreet art of editing the past. He or she likes to drag out the most painful and humiliating stories, sometimes accompanied by ancient and embarrassing photographs. Naturally, we treasure such venerable truth-tellers, and admire their powers of memory, although sometimes we pray for a little diplomatic amnesia, or laryngitis.

But, like it or not, this is the season for family stories in all their interesting and creative variety. With Thanksgiving so closely followed by the holidays we may hear them twice in four weeks. It is hard, but it is necessary. Some may be no easier to believe than Homer’s Odyssey, but they are our stories. A family is nothing without its memories.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.