Stories we tell our grandchildren

It’s been a busy week on this side of the world. I’m juggling two consulting projects from the kitchen table here in Laos, both for clients in London. One of the projects is reviewing training material for workshops running in Sudan and Chad next week. Sudan, incidentally, is where my father headed off to for two months yesterday on his own consulting project. The world seems very small sometimes. Well, except when you’re flying across the Pacific – then it seems enormous. Or when you stop and think about the fact that your immediate family is once again scattered over four continents.

OK, the world is not that small come to think of it. But thank God for the internet, and for skype. One of these days I will write an Ode to Skype. I will.

Did you know that when I first went to University in Sydney (way back in 1995) I wrote weekly letters back to my parents – who were about as far away as they could get, in Washington DC – and received weekly letters back? I sometimes also used to receive cartoons that my mother had clipped from the Washington Post and stuck in an envelope and posted with nary a note inside. Not even a scrawled, “Thinking of you. Love you”. This practice invariably made me roll my eyes. We didn’t even have our own individual phones in our dorm rooms. Nine of us that lived in the same group shared a phone in the common room that could only receive incoming calls. So on Sunday mornings I used to hang around the dorm waiting for my parents to call in. Sometimes we connected, sometimes we didn’t.

Mike and I were talking the other day about the stories that we might tell our grandkids. My grandparents tell stories about not finishing high school. Or getting married at twenty and then having him go off to fight in WWII two weeks later and not coming back for two years. Or owning and working a sugar cane farm, and the year that there was a huge flood and the barn burned down. My father talks about growing up on a dairy farm, and how it was a special treat to have chicken on Christmas day, and how he had to milk all the cows before and after school. My mother talks about going to school in a three-room schoolhouse down the road with 40 other kids.

These stories fascinate me. I can remember this sugar cane farm – my mother’s parents didn’t move off it until I was about thirteen – and I briefly attended this tiny school in between the time we lived in Bangladesh and the first time we moved to Washington DC. I’ve glimpsed these lives, but they haven’t really been mine. I feel that way a lot, actually – that I’ve glimpsed many, many different lives, but most of them haven’t really been mine. This process of figuring out what sort of life has been and is mine remains an ongoing one.

Mike and I decided the stories that would probably seem as foreign to our grandkids as stories of two-year separations during World War II seem to us, would be the stories about LBTI – Life Before The Internet. It will probably be inconceivable to our children, not to mention our grandchildren, that this time existed before computers in homes, before email, skype, and mobile phones, before the bone deep assurance that you can reach almost anyone, almost anywhere, as quickly as you want and need to.

I reckon these stories – the ones about handwriting school assignments in eleventh grade, researching papers using only our set of encyclopedias, penning letters home in University, scheduled weekly phone calls that sometimes didn’t happen, and years spent in overseas countries when my parents could only call their parents very infrequently (and it cost the moon) – these are the stories that will smack of science fiction. They will force these children to imagine a world very different from the one that they know.

What do you think? And what sorts of stories have your parents and grandparents told you? Does the world that they grow up in seem foreign or familiar?

8 responses to “Stories we tell our grandchildren

  1. LBTI was life before me. Although, I still write letters, which generally garners me the label of “old-fashioned.” I’m not sure what I’ll tell my grandchildren, but I expect the world will change a lot before I have grandchildren. In fact, it will probably change significantly before I have children.

    My grandparents tell me stories of escaping from concentration camps or living as snipers in the jungles of Indonesia. Or stories of immigrating to Canada from Holland after WWII. My grandma tells of being sick, of the smell on the boat, the wetness of the air, the cramped space filled with her large family. My grandpa reminisces happily about sitting on the deck with other young, single guys, singing songs, playing the harmonica, and winking at all the pretty ladies. They say that the day after their feet touched the Canadian soil, they were all working in the fields no matter what age or gender, and for the first few years they lived in a chicken coop.

    My parents tell me stories of walking to school, of getting up at 4 am to dust crops, of bedrooms shared by four or five siblings at a time. My dad reminisces about going to university and studying computers at a time when nobody knew what a computer was, and my mom tells me of the time she went to Holland with two friends at age 18, like I did at age 17.

    It’s funny how some things change, and yet some things — the jokes and love of family, the bonds that connect people, the way a teenage girl likes a boy, feeling indescribable joy at simply being alive — these things never change.

    • I think letters are awesome. Wow, what stories, huh? Thank you for sharing – I find those snippets fascinating. Because WWII is such a seminal, fascinating, time and I’ve absorbed so much WWII history in high school and through books since then, WWII stories always have this odd familiarity to me, even though I’ve never lived through anything quite like that. And you’re right about things changing – and some things staying constant across all sorts of dire situations. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her most recent book that a friend of hers was working as a psychologist in refugee camps in Thailand years ago with people fleeing the Cambodian genocide. She was feeling totally under-qualified and wondering what she could possibly say to them, and to her surprise she found that mostly what they wanted to talk about was, “I love this guy, but he doesn’t love me, he says he loves someone else in the camp…” etc.

  2. Great post and topic! Our family has just started a family project to collectively attempt to remember and document as many family stories as we possible. It has been fantastic fun for each of us to tell the story as we remember it and see the differences. It will be great for the following generations and we love the collective reminiscing now.

    In my family we still have a 24-year-old milking 150 cows every morning and evening. After working on the farm, nothing else ever seems difficult, does it. As for LBTI – Shocking to remember that the ancient conditions of our grandparents and parents are reality for the bottom several billion today.

    • Oh yeah! Mike read this post and said, “if you want to see what life LBTI is like, just head to PNG” (which we both sort of knew given all the trouble we did have communicating while he was there. We used to joke that it was one of the few places in the world where we could be out of telecommunications contact for days, literally unreachable by cell phone or anything but satellite phone (presumably, not that we had a sat phone).

  3. Like Heidi, I have had the privilege of talking to grandparents and parents about their world, so different from the one I grew up in. My grandparents and my father were persecuted for their faith in Russia. I heard tales of forged passports, gunshots that killed one of my grandfathers, brothers and sisters forcefably separated, taking only the clothes on your back, long ship rides and the hardship of farming in Canada. My Dad told me what it was like to feel hunger, to shoot deer, rabbits, gophers, anything – just to try to feed a family of 12. My Mom talked about rising at 4 am to milk the cows and watching her younger brother squeeze one of the cow’s teats to send a jet of warm milk on his oatmeal.

    My Mom yearned to read, write and draw but only got through Grade 6 before she was “needed” at home. She told me about the “crystal radio set” her brothers built in secret on the roof and the one time she was able to listen to a “soap opera” on that set. She also mentioned the feelings she and her whole family had as they listened to the news that millions of Jews had been killed after WWII. My grandfather proclaimed Hitler as the anti-Christ and Armageddon near.

    Both my parents encouraged my brother and I to get all the education we could. They wanted us to live the dreams that they couldn’t because they had to work hard to help the rest of their family survive. My parents sacrificed so much for me it is overwhelming.

    I now have all the photos from my grandparents and parents, some of them dating back to the late 1800’s, when photography was just beginning. It is a treasure to have this family history and think of my Dad who went from horse-drawn sleighs to Model-T’s to man landing on the moon (which he said God would never allow).

    And I wonder what tales I will have to tell at the end of my days…

    • Wow, like I said to Heidi, thanks for sharing these snippets – they’re fascinating! What a different life your parents and grandparents lived from the one I have mostly known – and what a time of enormous worldwide change the family history that you have cataloged spans!

  4. I love it! The TCKs I work with in Beijing already have difficulty believing some of my stories from being a teenager 10-15 years ago. I try to explain that when I was in the US as a teenager I could only keep in touch with my Australian friends by writing letters. They find this very difficult to believe; surely that was only the case in the deep dark ages of, you know, their parents. The TCK experience is altering greatly with the advent of this technological era!

    • Isn’t it just! And those of us who grew up as TCK’s just before the internet revolution now DO sound like we came from a different planet, even though we’re only in our thirties or so.

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