I Believe in the Power of Stories
As a child my mother and I would sit on the porch where she told stories about her life growing up in Ann Arbor. I heard about all the heroes and villains of her day, those who inspired and those who taught by example, whether good or bad. Life, like an illustrated catechism, seemed simple. Yet, people were capable of change, transforming, sometimes in miraculous ways, the circumstances of their lives.
My ancestors became heroic figures in my eyes. My grandfather, Louis, stood up to the Ku Klux Klan when two men blocked his path as he walked down Spring Street on the way to morning Mass at St. Thomas church.
Ava, my grandmother, raised nine children as a widow during the depression. She never lost her sense of humor, and despite the burden of financial hardship always managed to feed hobos who stopped at the back porch and long lost relatives down on their luck.
These stories float back to me when I wake in the middle of the night fearful for what tomorrow may hold. I want to offer hopeful advise to future generations but feel helpless to do so without stories from the past. I want to tell children how I understand their fears about apocalyptic threats of war, bird flu, or the death of our oceans and rainforests. I want to tell them to look out for stories that are true and those that are not.
One of my earliest memories recalls the time my family visited a bomb shelter set up in our local mall during the cold war years of the 1950’s. Even as a child, I recognized the futility of such plans to ensure our national security. With my nose pressed up against the window of the shelter, I spied on the family that had volunteered to live for a week inside its safe but claustrophobic confines.
The mother prepared supper from a packet of rations while the father sat on a sofa under a painting of the Swiss Alps. I remember that scene especially since the painting was framed by an artificial window with red gingham curtains. Instinctively, I knew that this story was not true, that there would be no way to comfortably survive a nuclear war.
Now, at midlife, I struggle with the ominous reality that my generation is bequeathing huge debt, environmental degradation, and political gridlock to the future world. Yet, at the same time, I find hope in stories of other times when nations and individuals found ingenious ways to outmaneuver even the most precarious adversaries.
My friend tells stories of his Jewish grandfather escaping the Nazi invasion after being warned in a dream by his dead brother. I recall that great mystics lived in all ages right alongside famous despots. But, most of all, I believe stories incite us to remember who we are and how to become whole again.
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