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Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Care and Feeding of Family Stories

Family stories I told my son grew into plays like the one pictured here.
Do your kids want you to tell them bedtime stories? Mine did. Being a playwright/lyricist/writer made it harder, not easier, because when you spend the day making up stories, you can be pretty tapped out when bedtime rolls around.

One day I was so exhausted I asked my son to tell me a story. 

Of course that went nowhere, but he surprised me just the same by asking me to tell him a family story about my childhood. When I did, he wanted another—and that became his favorite kind of story.

I began to like telling family stories because I didn’t have to make them up. That way, I could save my creativity for the ideas I was working on—and, even better, the family stories gave me ideas as well.

I thought about all this when I went to see Nothando Zulu, director of the Black Storyteller’s Alliance, which is based in Minneapolis. Zulu is a complete master at storytelling, and the stories she tells range from folk tales to family stories that are dark, funny, suspenseful and engrossing. She knows just where to pause, when to raise her voice and when to soften it. She also knows that family dramas are some of the greatest dramas of all.

So if your child wants a story, the first place you might look is your own backyard, because that’s probably where you can find the most seeds. If you’re a musician, you might even have songs you grew up with that you can share with your child. If not, it doesn’t matter—all your kid really really wants to know is who you are.

I told my son about all four grandparents who journeyed to America from Russia; how his grandfather Julius played in a Klezmer band and his grandmother Esther had red hair, just like mine; how grandma Jenny made her daughter’s wedding dress and cooked like an angel; and how grandfather Louis was a foreman on a nobleman’s estate and rode a horse around the property.

I told him about my fashionable Aunt Ida and Uncle Louis, who smoked camels and died of cancer; about their fancy apartment in New York City and glamorous lifestyle, which sadly came to an end with Louis’ death and Ida's illness, which sent her in and out of hospitals until she too passed away.

I told him about my childhood in New Jersey and how I played with my next-door neighbor as a tot under a weeping willow tree. I also talked about my favorite babysitter Louisa, who’d been a dancer for the Metropolitan Opera. It seemed he could never get enough of these stories, which also sometimes found their way into mine.

Which I think is a good thing—for both of us.

To learn more about mining your family stories for your children, check out these articles: