It’s the stories that matter, not the stuff.

This time of year we could use a reminder that it’s the stories that matter, not the stuff.

Ten years ago I had my “aha!” moment about this. I had recently become interested in personal history. Fresh from my first Association of Personal Historians conference, I joined my husband’s extended family in Chicago for the annual Christmas gathering. His big Polish-Italian clan gathered at Cousin Richard’s home in Hinsdale, which was big enough to accommodate three generations including over a  dozen children under 12.

That year Richard presented his Cousin Kenny with a video compilation made from the many Super 8 movies Kenny had shot growing up. Kenny was born deaf; his movie camera was his way of interacting with others and it meant the world to him. Richard slipped the DVD into the player and dimmed the lights as the whole family gathered to watch Kenny’s “movie premiere.” Scenes of backyard pranks, trips to the local beach, fishing trips Up North rolled over us. The little kids were spellbound–commenting at the funny old clothes, laughing at the silly hi-jinks of the children (now the adults in the room), and so on. Kenny, usually on the sidelines, was beaming at the center of the whole family’s attention.

Then a knock and a loud Ho-Ho-Ho at the door. The spell was broken. Santa had arrived. The children forgot Kenny and his movies and ran squealing back to their world of gimme-gimme. I squeezed Kenny’s hand. A little later, I handed him a note: “Your movies are important. Thank you.” I only hope it helped.

I realized that day that children are fascinated by their family history, if given a chance. But that fascination is fragile, easily displaced by the spells cast by our  material culture, our myths of present-bearing jolly old elves, our whizzing, blinking technology.

The stories matter as much as the stuff–but we have to do our part to give them a central role in our holiday rituals. We have to defend whatever our family equivalents of Kenny’s movies are from whatever equivalent Santa will knock them off stage.

On December 8th, I will make this case at my workshop titled “This Holiday, Save the Stories.” Come to learn practical tips to nurture your family ties through stories. Refreshments and instructional materials provided.

Suggested donation $10, $5 for additional family members—Proceeds benefit for the Goodman Community Center.  No advance registration required.

Christmas 1959ish

That’s me on the left, ca. 1959.



About eastsidehistorymadison

East Side History Club Organizer
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