Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Family Stories (The Red Tent)

While I was in Florida, I found myself sitting in the retirement community's dining room, holding my 4 month old daughter, listening to my grandmother and great aunt talk about a summer spent on the Gulf in Biloxi Mississippi during World War II. Unlike most stories they tell, this is one I had never heard before, and it was one in which my grandmother, whose memory is failing, piped up with sharp details.

This summer I read The Red Tent for the first time (-!) The book takes place in Old Testament Joseph's day when women and men lived as almost separate tribes. The women wove their families together with story; they were the story keepers. They named the world into meaning by passing down the stories of their lives, their mothers' lives, their ancestors' lives, of God and legends, their bodies and dreams. Women hoped to have a daughter of her own to feed stories to by the spoonful because stories were the oats and olive oil of life.

I tend to get impatient when my mom accidentally tells me the same story twice, to roll my eyes and rush her on to the next thing. In The Red Tent storytelling is repetition -- listening is hearing a story enough to internalize it.

Sitting in Florida I tried to hear the stories, to absorb these sisters in their 90's, to understand where they came from, to crack the great code of how they fit together, how they have loved and wounded and shaped each other. I wondered how I will bring them to life for Eden years from now.

The thing (the frustrating but essential thing) is that we never can really crack the code. We can't know people's pasts, how they ended up right here before us, not fully. We can only know the pieces people give or show us, the scraps we collect and glue stick down -- their stories. So I am trying, now, to receive those bits before they breeze away and I miss them, trying to -- like Rachel said in the book -- hear them until they become my own memories.

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