I recently read a novel I would recommend highly, called The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. In it, an institutionalized woman secretly writes a memoir of her life in Ireland. In just the first few pages, I was hooked. The book is part mystery, part memoir, and contains insightful passages that shine like small jewels.
I was delighted with this passage about the role of family stories. The narrator is remembering a story her father loved to tell. He had experienced a miracle, he said, when an Indian friend saved his life and appeared to sprout wings from his back like an angel. She concludes,
"...my father's curious happiness was most clearly evident in the retelling of this story. It was as if such an event were a reward to him for being alive, a little gift of narrative that pleased him so much it conferred on himself, in dreams and waking, a sense of privilege, as if such little scraps of stories and events composed for him a ragged gospel. And if ever there were to be written an evangelical gospel of my father's life – and why should there not, as every person's life is said to be precious to God – I suppose those wings merely glimpsed on his friend the Indian's back would become more substantial, and things merely hinted at by him would become in the new telling by a second hand solid, unprovable, but raised up even higher into the realms of miracle. So that all and sundry might take comfort from it.
My father's happiness. It was a precious gift in itself, as perhaps my mother's anxiety was a perpetual spanner thrown into her works. For my mother never made miniature legends of her life, and was singularly without stories, though I am sure there were things there to tell as good as my father's.
It is funny, but it strikes me that a person without anecdotes that they nurse while they live, and that survive them, are more likely to be utterly lost not only to history but the family following them. Of course this is the fate of most souls, reducing entire lives, no matter how vivid and wonderful, to those sad black names on withering family trees, with half a date dangling after and a question mark.
My father's happiness not only redeemed him, but drove him to stories, and keeps him even now alive in me, like a second more patient and more pleasing soul within my poor soul. Perhaps his happiness was curiously unfounded. But cannot a man make himself as happy as he can in the strange long reaches of a life? I think it is legitimate. After all, the world is indeed beautiful, and if we were any other creature than man we might be continuously happy in it.
There is a lesson, or sevaral lessons, to be learned here. It is not just the family story that captivates us. The author who comments on the story, who draws conclusions about what it means to her, can add a whole new level of meaning. What an opportunity for all of us, as authors, to not only reproduce and record family stories, but also to enrich the family narrative by conveying our own vision of the world.