A good story must have the right amount of context and detail. Too little and the story feels hollow, too much and it drags so much that you start wishing you were a blind pirate with an endless supply of rum. I didn’t learn this from the writing classes I took at my fancy, liberal arts college and I didn’t learn it from a book. Everything I learned about storytelling, I learned from my mother and her three sisters. As a child, I’d sit and listen as they told each other story after story until the room vibrated with their laughter and I was mesmerized. They could turn a tragedy into something so funny that it would leave you breathless from laughing. They wiped away the pain of their mistakes through clever tales that invited others to laugh with them rather than at them. This is how they survived poverty, how they rose above the darkness of the past and disappointment in the present. They told stories and laughed to steel themselves against whatever the future might bring. This past weekend, my sister and I drove to St. Louis to celebrate my aunt’s birthday. Family came from California, Minnesota and Kansas but there were two notable absences – my aunt Dollie who died in 2007 and my mother who died in 2008. We felt their absence as we looked at pictures but they were there in our laughter, in my aunt's hands, in certain gestures that we all share and, as always, in the stories. It would have been easy for me to become lost in the grief that I have tried so hard to keep at bay but, within an hour of our arrival, I was laughing so hard that my ribs hurt. My aunts told stories I knew and ones that I had not yet heard. I told stories too and, in doing so, realized that I am no longer the little girl looking on in awe - I am finally one of them.
I’ve always known that I carry the past inside of me but this weekend reminded me that it is my responsibility to carry it forward. Their stories are my stories and I will write them all down someday. I will. Until then, I will hold onto them tightly because those stories are my greatest inheritance. The same is true for us all.