Family Networks Like Bamboo Systems
I have a stand of bamboo in my backyard. It is beautiful, reaching fifty feet high and dancing in the wind. Birds make their homes in its leaves. When the snow falls, it weighs the tops of the trees over to make a network of tunnels that my son and our neighbors’ kids crawl through like explorers in a new world. The feather sounds of winter as the trees rustle…sounds of my home, now and in my youth.
But there is a root system under the ground that steals water from my grass. And when the springtime comes, baby bamboo shoots spring up in places I didn’t think the root system could have spread to. The bamboo stands at the back of the yard, yet new trees want to grow in the middle, even on the other side of the fence in my neighbor’s yard. In the growing season, I have to keep my eye on it. My son and I go on periodic searches, and when we find young shoots, sometimes only an inch out of the dirt, we kick them. If we wait too long to check the grass, we find shoots that in a couple of days have grown three feet.
The bamboo is crazy, its network of roots everywhere, growing out and out, generation after generation. The longer the network exists, the stronger it becomes, and the harder it will be to eradicate.
Which gets me thinking about family, legacy, heritage, and the importance of root systems. Each of us is a node; we have roots behind us, the ones that led to us. If those roots had never existed, then neither would we. Now we plant our own roots, grow offshoots.
But whereas the bamboo can live hundreds of years, generations side by side, we need to tell our stories for our roots to really survive. Where do my roots go back to? That’s hard to say with precision. When my son asks, I’ll tell him what I know: my grandfather’s parents emigrated as infants from Germany through Ellis Island in the late 1800s. I’ll tell my son how Cousin Dougie did some genealogy work and learned that our family name, Squires, is actually an Americanization of Skwaris, which was a Germanization of a town in the Ukraine, Skvyra. My grandfather confirmed that Skwaris was in fact my family’s name until his father and uncle changed it.
But how many generations lived in Germany after migrating from Skvyra, Ukraine? How did my grandfather’s parents meet? What made his grandparents decide to make the trek to the United States? Grandpa couldn’t say.
I just wish I had the story—as much of it as possible, anyway—from the many nodes in my root system. The story I have thins out the further back I look. It’s a ghost, irretrievable. But looking forward, I want to do my part to thicken up my family’s story. When my great-grandchildren want to know about me and how I view the world of today, they’ll just have to open the book. I want my family network to be more like the bamboo root system under my grass—generations side by side.
LifeStories: Good For Us All
As I launch into my new venture to assist people with the recording of their LifeStories, the question arises: Why do a lifestory? What are the benefits?
Answering this question feels overwhelming at first, because the answer seems so obvious:
We record these stories so they will last forever, so we can pass them down to the following generations. When my son asks me about my grandfather, when he’s curious about his heroism in World War II, about what growing up in 1920s and 1930s New York City was like, about how he met my grandmother, about what it was like to become a grandfather, a great-grandfather, we’ll have that story from ‘the horse’s mouth.’
How wonderful for my son; perhaps it will build in him a greater sense of family and history, a feeling that he is part of a long and ongoing family line that stretches back in time and charges forward with momentum. Perhaps that will give him a feeling of having strong roots in life, a home he belongs to, and will work against the feeling of loneliness and purposelessness that we all must sometime face. I could go on and on about the potential benefits that my grandfather’s lifestory can provide to my son and the rest of us who follow.
But what about the benefits to the person who is telling the story?
How gratifying to know that you will be remembered, that the story of your life is important to somebody, that you and your story can provide comfort, history, education, guidance to young ones coming up after you, ones who surely can use all the guidance they can get.
And what about the therapeutic benefits to the mind that come with remembering? The flexing of mental muscles that may have lain dormant for a while. Remembering can improve the cognitive functions, can get those mental juices flowing.
And it can be great fun for the storyteller. You ever notice that across an entire life, whether you’ve lived 90 years or only 37 as I have, there are some episodes that take up far more real estate in your memory than the rest? People tell the same stories over and over again, because those are what stand out to them as the most memorable parts of their lives. Out of my grandfather’s long and varied 92-year life, he mostly talked about the war and his swimming career (he was good enough to compete in the Olympics, and would have if it weren’t for World War II). He had a ball talking about training for and winning swim meets all through high school and his first year of college. And it made him laugh every time he talked about the fun he had while on R&R in the Pacific—in Sydney, Australia, and Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand.
Now that I have his stories immortalized in print—despite the fact that Grandpa is gone and can never tell his stories again—they will not fade with the passing years. They will live on forever.
According to the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, benefits of telling your lifestory include:
It is healthy for our elders to tell us their memories, but they need us to listen.