The Power of a Family Story

Posted by Dr. Karen Bohlin on Nov 5, 2018 9:11:45 AM

My siblings have been telling Grandma Bohlin stories since I was a child. “Did you know she drove from New Jersey to Boston to see Grandpa in his Drum Corps Performance?” one story began. “When she hit Commonwealth Avenue, she followed the trolley tracks underground right into the station!”

Grandma Bohlin was a youthful 62 when she died of a heart attack. I never had a chance to meet her, yet I have heard so much about the days surrounding her passing that I feel like I was there.

My brother Dennis was eight years old when he stumbled upon my mother dissolved in tears at the kitchen table.  He stood awkwardly in the doorway as she sobbed. “Your grandmother just passed away.” Dennis steeled his gut and made a desperate plea, “Please, God, no.”

Steve, who was seven at the time, was likewise distraught by my grandmother’s death. When he finally returned to school after the wake and the funeral, he chose not to take the bus home at the end of the day. Escaping the bus monitor’s notice, Steve made his way along back roads to my grandmother’s modest home and familiar front porch.  And he spent the afternoon sitting on the stoop, hoping that she might show up.

In the meantime, my mother launched a search party of neighbors and friends to look for her first-grade son who had not returned from school. After a call to the police and my father’s early return from work, it dawned on them where he might be.

As they pulled up to my grandmother’s house they spotted Steven, forlorn, sitting atop the front steps as if keeping vigil.

I have always wondered what it was about Grandma Bohlin that gives her such a sacred place in the hearts and collective memory of my family.  She struggled to make ends meet and held down a part-time job until the day she died. She never bought the boys expensive gifts or took them on vacations.  She did faithfully bestow her characteristic warmth and attention. She listened. She got down on her hands and knees to play games with them. And she orchestrated a favorite annual tradition: the Easter egg hunt on her front lawn.  My brothers remember fondly her weekly surprise visits. She would sweep them up from under my mother’s tired feet and take them for an afternoon of adventure.

Grandma Bohlin’s affection and self-giving left an indelible impression on my family.  Inevitably, at every family party, stories of Grandma Bohlin surface. Her life is honored in story, and she continues to influence and shape our family.  

In his delightful New York Times piece “The Stories that Bind Us,”  Bruce Feiler cites research on the power of family stories in helping children develop a sense of belonging and a vision of who they can become. Moreover, children “who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”Feiler explains:

[Researchers] developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions. Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

Two months later, after the devastating events of September 11, they reassessed the children. Once again, the children who knew more about their family were proving more resilient. Why? “The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.

As I think back on some of the more difficult moments in my family, I remember my brothers saying, what would Grandma Bohlin do? How would she respond? Her story is a critical part of who we are individually and as a family.  Dostoevsky captures this power beautifully at the close of his Brothers Karamazov : “You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from home…even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve us one day for our salvation.”

As you share family stories this Thanksgiving season, know that amidst the laughter and the tears, you are strengthening hearts and minds for a lifetime.

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