The Power of Story

Last weekend, when I viewed that black and white photograph, the world exploded: a symphony of color.

***

I was four years old when our family visited the stuffy apartment of my great-grandparents.

I stood pressed next to my parents and grandparents as we skyrocketed the cramped elevator. Crossing their threshhold, I saw Nana rocking in her rose chair, padded house slippers covering her feet. Pa sat perched on a worn-out sofa, hands resting on his belly. He was remarkably short, by any standard, his feet not even reaching the shag carpet unless he scooted to the edge of the couch.

There was something imperceptibly intimidating about his face: a large, rectangular head, wise-guy smirk, eyes framed by dark-rimmed glasses. As lore had it, (always whispered along with: Careful, little pitchers have big ears) Pa once strode the city streets with a belligerent crowd, stirring fights. The third of eleven children, he had barely finished eighth grade when he quit school in order to support his enormous family. From the few crumbs of scattered tales I have gathered, the family was tough, and by that I actually mean rough. Resilient, but lacking warmth.

Pa was said to be brilliant, but a poor handler of money; a man who considered practical details trivial. A natural inventor, he had designed a way to preserve drinking water for military use. When he neglected to complete the trivial paperwork to patent his invention, another man snatched it up and quickly patented what ultimately became a wildly profitable invention.

Just think… my grandmother used to moan in her older years, chin resting in her palm, elbow atop the dinner table. If my father had only registered the patent, we would all be living in a mansion overlooking the ocean.

I remember studying a can of this preserved water, which my mother kept on a shelf at home. For years I held the weight of history, the thrill of invention, heavy in my hands, but after a time it became only a solid gray can, reminding me that details do matter.

Of course I knew none of this that day. All I knew as I clutched my Grandpa’s hand, was that Pa frightened me.

Come here, little girl. Pa beckoned to me roughly with his short index finger. I inched forward.

Watch this, Kristin. I can bite my thumb off.

And with that terrifying sentence, he placed his thumb straight into the air and pretended to gnaw it off. When he pulled the thumb out of his mouth, he kept it at an angle so that half of it appeared missing. He then feigned to swallow the missing half: solid proof to any four-year-old that all hope was lost.

I felt a trapped cry rise in my throat, as my grandfather pulled me back, and stooped low, comforting me.

Joe, he hollered to his father-in-law, Stop it! You are scaring the child to death.

Pa laughed, showing me his intact thumb.

And that is my only memory of my great-grandfather. He died within a year.

***

Years ago a friend gifted me an ancestry.com subscription, prompting me to spit into a vial and mail in my DNA. When I received the results, there were no surprises: mainly English and Irish ancestry on one side; predominantly German on the other. I realized after I studied the results, that these findings felt dull. What was I really searching for?

Stories, of course.

Shortly after those ancestry results, my brother emailed me a copy of our detailed family tree that our uncle had created: an in-depth labor of intense research to trace back the lines that had led to the union of his parents; my grandparents.

I studied the thirty-odd pages, and initially became stuck on one glaring mistake: the death of Pa dated 1967 rather than 1977. I was not even born until 1972, and this error would indicate that I had never stepped into that terribly warm apartment. It would also not account for my memory of the reception following Pa’s funeral.

I was five, and there were throngs of people stuffed into my grandparent’s home on Washington Street. I stood at the edge of their living room, observing Nana as she wailed, handkerchief in hand, rocking steadily in the chair, while my own grandmother sat dabbing her eyes on the far sofa. Relatives were milling about, bumping elbows while clutching drinks and balancing hors d’oeuvres on tiny napkins. As people traipsed through the narrow living room, I studied the fireplace mantle. Atop it were several genuine whale teeth, with exquisite sketches of ships etched upon their yellowed surface. My Grandpa had once placed them in my open hands, never once prompting me to be gentle. I had watched him carefully cradle the monstrous teeth, and instinctively knew they were valuable.

Our ancestors were whalers in New Bedford, he told me as I held the artifacts.

Those whale teeth were very cool, and they sparked my imagination. I envisioned brave men in our family line, in worn-out rain jackets with hoods, shouting to one another above the howling winds and frigid sea air, spinning through waters with their spears and ropes, bravely chasing those gigantic sea creatures and their precious blubber needed for oil-lamps and soap. Their success was measured by the number of teeth they brought home.

I never imagined that within a few years of Pa’s funeral, in the pitch of night, my grandparents’ home on Washington Street would be robbed; whale teeth forever lost. But I still held the story.

***

Aside from the incorrect date of Pa’s death, my uncle’s report held intriguing information. One family line traces firmly back to the deck of the Mayflower itself, my ancestors sailing that tumultuous journey of sea-sickness and hardtack and miles of grey ocean. A journey that began with excitement and promise, and ended with uncertainty and exhaustion and the painstaking work of survival.

Another document reveals the tragic story of three siblings: Sarah, John, and Zachariah, relatives to our direct family line, who climbed a cherry tree one lovely summer’s day in the year 1711. At that very moment, Indians raided their property, kidnapping the three children, ripping them from the tree branches and forcing them to Quebec. The daughter was never seen again, but the boys returned some thirty years later, now grown men who had adopted Native American culture, in time becoming prominent Indian chiefs. Their painted faces and dress concealed both their heritage and our family bloodline, pulsing through their veins.

The facts are just that: names, dates, towns, and tribes.

Did their mother recognize the shape of their eyes, or the slopes of their noses? Did she hug her dear sons and weep? Was their father relieved to see them alive as Indian men? Or was the pain now worse, as they chose not to remain with their birth parents? Did these sons even remember their mother and father after lost decades?

I am left guessing, longing to fill in the blanks.

***

While reading through the Old Testament, I have encountered list after list of genealogies: names and relations and tribes. I pause, and allow myself to become fully aware of each name. We are all image-bearers of God, created by his design, and each one of us has a tale or two worth sharing. What a shame not to keep and treasure our stories. God has gifted us with history: the ability to write and speak and remember the things of old (Isaiah 46:9-10). Stories from our life on earth help us to witness how sin flows black, curling the heart inward, often carrying poison to our progeny, ever prone to repeat our ways.

Today I read of Gideon. In Judges 6:25-27, the LORD commanded Gideon to remove the altar of Baal that his own father had built, replacing it with an altar to God. Gideon obeyed, but I was fascinated to read that Gideon did this in the dark of night, because he feared his family.

Only two chapters later, Gideon is found repeating the sins of his father, by creating an idol out of melted gold, which he placed directly in his city. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family. (Judges 8:27)

Family is a powerful thing, and I understand Gideon’s fear. Family holds sway, and I have only relinquished my sin of people-pleasing during this past year. I bear the scars, but my story goes something like this: When you choose to love God most and please him first, he will shore you up with immeasurable peace in the midst of the upheaval. God has no room for idols in the hearts of his children. Family is a gift to be treasured, not a god to be worshipped.

***

Last weekend, our son, Caleb, placed a black and white photo on his kitchen table.

Look at this, he said.

I stood in that kitchen, so bright and pretty: a happy place for our newly-married son and his dear wife.

There, gently placed before me, was a photograph of our first grandchild. A magnificent sonogram profile.

In a flash, I felt the blessings of heritage, the beauty akin to a French braid: strands gently pulled and grafted in, familial lines weaving and culminating in a divinely designed person who is already loved and cherished and fully known by God. With this one glance, I was reduced to happy tears, as joy gave way to excitement and sudden love: fierce and strong.

Our firstborn son had shown me a photograph of his firstborn. Our story goes on, an intricate tapestry woven by God.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

Psalm 139:14

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