off the cuff

Keeper of stories

I guess some of those family stories made more of an impression on me than I realised because in due course, they began to appear in my repertoire of tales at the dining table with my child

Cheryl Rao,Special to Gulf News
17:27 January 12, 2018

You know how it is when we are in our 20s, 30s and 40s. We are so busy making our way in the world, bringing up children and trying to see them on their way to the future that we move away from the larger family circle of aunts and uncles and cousins — and then sometime around retirement, when we have time on our hands, we begin to wonder where all those cousins went and what are they doing?

Luckily for those who are in that stage now, we have the modern miracle of the internet — and Facebook and so much else — to enable us to connect with long-lost family members. And thus, suddenly we find ourselves communicating with those with whom we had nothing in common when we were eight years old and they were 12 or we were 18 and they were nine.

In childhood and during the teen years, a gap of a few years seemed insurmountable in terms of having a conversation or doing things together. We certainly may have been on the same family picnic — but all of us were not playing the same games. Some of us were still shadowing our parents in a burst of sudden insecurity because of the unfamiliar faces around us, or if we were familiar with all the faces, we were trying to eavesdrop on teenage whispers — while those teenagers were doing their best to avoid us.

It was like that for me during my childhood — and as I grew up and still continued to be loathe to let go of my mother’s apron strings, I had the benefit of listening to many, many tales of the family. Mother was a font of information and always had something to share to make everyday conversation more interesting and more meaningful.

Incidents from up and down and across the family tree were cited as examples of how to behave or how not to; tragic stories and happy ones were cited to illustrate whatever was the message of the day. In the course of listening to those stories, I got to know about members of the family I had never met and never would or those I had always shied away from for no good reason.

I guess some of those family stories made more of an impression on me than I realised because in due course, they began to appear in my repertoire of tales at the dining table with my child. But, instead of hanging on to my every word, he waved those tales away and demanded more “believable” stories: How could he relate to finding one’s way home from the railway station in a tonga (horse carriage) when he had never seen one? And what did he know of salt-fish and silk stockings that were part of Mother’s food and clothing? Flying heroes were more credible for him!

Thus those family stories — of picnics and parties, illnesses and care giving, losses and gains — stayed dormant; until now, out of the blue, cousins from distant corners of the world are getting back in touch and not only do they want to share the stories of their lives and hear the stories of ours, but they want to know about the earlier generations. What work did our grandfather do? How did our grandmother die? When did that aunt leave home? When did the other aunt return?

And as I dip into my memory and re-tell what I heard at Mother’s knee, I wish that I had paid closer attention to significant dates and events instead of just chortling at tales of who finished the omelette meant for the whole family and who hid someone’s best shoes ...

To be a keeper of stories is not easy.

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.