Friday, May 6, 2011

How Family Stories Change Us

Great-Grandpa Gus and
Great Nana Matti Gleichmann
For a season when I was a child, my parents worked at a hotel. It wasn't just any hotel, but one that my great-grandparents had purchased as a young married couple in 1921. And for a time, while I was a teenager, I resented the place: the demands of the business, the conflicts it generated among family members, the intrusion of that life into MY life.
      During my senior year of high school, my mother asked me to help her with a project. She was assembling a wall of historic photographs chronicling some seventy-five years of the property, and she asked me to do some research with her, and to write the story that would go with the images.
      That project of writing my family's story--at least a portion of it--forever changed my attitude. It opened up a view onto my great-grandparents' desires to invest in their family and community. It showed me a side of my aging Great Nana that I'd not fully understood--the history of a strong woman widowed young (Grandpa Gus was killed by a drunk driver), who raised her children through World War II, who never remarried, and who ran the hotel with her children and grandchildren until her death, just a month shy of her 101st birthday. Her story explained much about the strength of the women who precede me, and what strength of character they might have passed along to me. Strengths I might not have fully tapped. Yet.
      Today, The Pierpont Inn is a historic landmark (and it's still owned by other members of my sprawling family tree). In 1995, my husband and I were married there. (Right there in front of those lovely cottages that are pictured on the homepage.) For me, the location represents a way of regarding my own history that I would have missed if I hadn't paid attention to the story.
     I was reminded of this experience after reading about someone else's “Grandpa Gus,” who died young, and how retelling his story changed her life, 

In what ways have the stories of your family changed the way you see your own story?

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