Jane Johnson Struck

Jane Johnson Struck
The percolations of a coffee-guzzling wife, mom, grandma, writer, and editor

Drink This In

"Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the Word of the Lord is to the soul."
Isak Dinesen
"Coffee makes us severe, and grave, and philosophical."
Jonathan Swift

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Family Stories

How they can unleash transformative power

At the sound of his first word, my throat tightened and my eyes smarted with tears. I hadn’t heard my Norwegian grandfather speak since he’d passed away 31 years ago at the age of 89.

Yet Grandpa Johnson’s voice—and the bittersweet memories it evoked—flooded my life recently during a visit to my parents. As we sat together in their sunroom, Dad revealed he’d “interviewed” his father before his death to preserve precious family stories.

“Would you like to hear our conversation?” my father asked tentatively. “Sure, Dad,” I replied. So he dug out the old audiotape, plopped it into a tape recorder, then pressed “play.”

Suddenly, Grandpa Johnson seemed to return from the grave to share his tales. Over the tape’s rattle and hum, I listened to my father’s questions and noted his skill at guiding my grandfather’s rambling. So Dad’s the one who gave me the interviewing gene, the editor in me thought proudly.

With his familiar accent, Grandpa Johnson recounted his childhood in the village of Kvalsvik on Norway’s rocky western coast. In stoic Scandinavian style, he recalled how as a 16-year-old cod fisherman he’d sailed Iceland’s coastal seas and survived a dramatic ocean storm that sounded straight out of the Discovery Channel's mega-popular series, Deadliest Catch.

Soon after, my grandfather survived a life-threatening bout with pneumonia too. He described how he slowly recuperated by hiking mountain trails to regain his stamina, lying down often to rest and stare up at the cloud-filled, Nordic blue sky. Perhaps my deep love for mountains is part of my Norwegian DNA.

His stories progressed; he spoke of immigration, of love, of the constant quest for work, then of the Great Depression’s devastating losses. As I listened, I felt both embarrassment for my life’s ease, and inspiration from my grandfather’s strength. His stories, steeped with reminders of his faith in God, began changing my attitude toward my comparatively insignificant trials. Grandpa Johnson’s words gave me hope that I, too, could meet adversity with courage and perseverance.

Then, all too soon, the spinning tape stopped; my grandfather’s voice receded into memory. And suddenly I realized how often I’ve let slip opportunities to preserve family stories for future generations.

Several years ago, my husband’s Aunt Maria regaled him and me with tales of her Sicilian childhood and strict Italian mother, the grandmother my husband hadn’t really known. He’d never heard those stories before—and may never again. If only I could go back to record them! And countless times my mother has reconstructed the colorful, happy details of her youth. I’m familiar with her stories now; but someday, when carrying on this oral tradition, will my memory fall short?

I understand my dad’s reasons for preserving his father’s stories. Capturing the personality and history of loved ones holds such poignancy. But sharing family stories also unleashes transformative power. As a middle-aged wife and mom, I’m only now discovering how the story lines running through my family members’ lives—past and present—contribute to mine. I wouldn’t have certain insights or inspiration if I hadn’t paid attention to those accounts.

Family will always form who we are—even if we’d rather disown than embrace our histories. But thankfully, once God enters a family’s story, he courses through the plot lines, colors the details, and transforms our identities.

I’ll be watching for such evidence of God's presence in our family history whenever my husband and I are able to visit our relatives. Then I'll hold these treasures close to my heart, because they underscore God's grace throughout the generations.

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