Talking with Aunt Toby
Henry David Abraham MD
I had a talk with my Aunt Toby recently. She’s 79, thrice married, and started life as an Orthodox Jew. I hadn’t known much else about her, and I thought it was time I did. She lives on the other side of the country. Our paths never seemed to cross. But we live in the greatest age information in history. It took a few strokes at the computer, a call here, a call there, and Aunt Toby came back into my life. Though she’s on Facebook and corresponds by email quite nicely, there is nothing better than two human beings talking in real time. So no emails, selfies, tweets, or posts on FB. We were just two people in a family who wanted to catch up.
Why is this important? Because talking like this helps answer where we and our families came from. Of all the data in our lives, thinking about our own families of origin is pushed on the back burner by the thousand claims of daily life. Don’t believe me? Test this idea out with a little quiz to your kids. Ask them where their grandparents were born, where they grew up, and what they did for a living. How did they score? 100%? Great! It means your family takes special pains to know itself. Less than 100%? Not unusual. The first generation often doesn’t talk, and the second generation doesn’t ask. But what better way for kids to get a sense of their own history than getting it straight from the source? Stories count. Old jokes count. Shared troubles count. These are some of the ties that bind a family together.
But there’s a hitch. What’s more fun for a kid, Gramps’ story about life before the cellphone, or playing Mortal Kombat (the Komplete Edition)? Get real, Gramps, you’ve just been upstaged by an Xbox. So getting a kid to buy into this family history thing is not easy. But don’t blame the Xbox. There’s good neuroscience to explain why a kid will lapse into semi-stupor, cross her eyes and start drooling at the sound of any sentence that starts “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” This talking stuff between generations is hard to do. There are more non-starters than starters. What makes things even harder is that kids’ brains are wired for coding the here and now, not for planning the future or viewing the past. That’s why it’s perfectly healthy if your child never turns in a term paper early.
The trouble the young brain has wrapping itself around the big picture is an especial challenge to history teachers. It’s also why the easy road is for a teacher to hammer on the names and dates of history, and the higher road is to help the student connect the dots with a sweeping perspective that is, well, History. The easy lesson teaches that the Battle of Zama was in 202 B.C., but the greater one gets you thinking that if the Romans had lost the Battle, we might be speaking Punic today.
So that’s your assignment, Mom and Dad: Become the inspired teacher of your family’s history. You can start by asking your parents the questions you always wanted to. Don’t be timid. They’ve probably wanted to tell you for years. And once you know, don’t be shy about telling the children. The stories make the family stronger. They strengthen your religious, artistic, and intellectual values. You and your parents are an unspoken text waiting to be given new life. Who came from China? Grew up in the North End? Went to Vietnam? Korea? World War Two? Who were the family athletes? Writers? Carpenters? Cooks? The geniuses behind the great family dishes?
Let me give technology its due in this regard. There has sprung up an internet industry to help. Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com enable you to actually construct a family tree from documents that they help you find. Sites like JewishGen.org help with uncovering Jewish family ties in Europe and elsewhere. But some of the most valuable treasures waiting for you to find may be in your attic or basement- the photo albums and letters of loved ones from the past. Who are these people? What were they doing in their lives when the picture was taken? And old letters? A family’s treasure.
Kids have no sense of history unless you give them one. The family history need not be filled with big stories or a clatter of skeletons tumbling from an old closet. And of course, parents have to use common sense and make them appropriate to a child’s age. The story of an aunt who was the first girl to run the 440 in her high school is forgotten until it’s retold. And once it is she becomes a star in the family for the moment, and over time, perhaps, an inspiration to her nieces and nephews.
My Aunt Toby didn’t run the 440 in high school. She told me, “I was famous for being a shopper. When I went on vacation all the sales people would call my house to make sure I was OK.” Then in passing she told me how she named two of her daughters for family members she lost in the Holocaust.