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An Armour of Stories—Happy New Year

We have a ritual in my family that begins usually at our Christmas champagne breakfasts but continues pretty much during all family gatherings up until New Year’s eve. This ritual is an echo of times long gone, when during the dark period of the year families would gather around the fireplace and stories be told. My family gathers and we recall the year, discuss, tease, console, laugh with one another.

New Year's Eve fire and winter BBQ

We talk about the crazy things, the slip-ups:

One year my mom had a really stressful time at work, she ended up coming home from shopping. It was -20°C outside and she wore her fox fur hat. The next morning she could not find the hat anywhere. Until she opened the fridge to make breakfast. Yup the hat was in the fridge. 

We also talk about really stupid, the ‘what were you thinking?!’ things. Usually by New Year’s Eve these are funny and the ‘I want to sink into the ground’ embarrassment has changed into ‘give your family the raised eyebrow and mock-annoyed look when they revel in your makes-a-great-story-incident’.

But we also recall people we have lost

… stories about my great-great-grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends long past. Stories that have informed my family’s identity. Stories like:

My great-grandfather in WWI was a messenger boy in France and during WWII worked in the local steel factory. Because we had a farm he would smuggle food into the factory for the prisoners of war who were forced laborers. When the P.o.W. heard the news that the war was over one of the women gave my great-granddad a piece of paper with Russian writing on it. Some time later when the Russian army came in our area and pulled all men out of the houses to take prisoners, my great-granddad showed them them piece of paper and was hugged by the soldiers who repeated: друг, друг (friend, friend).

I am particularly sad this year because most of my father figures have passed and I feel a bit deprived not being able to recall the stories with them or being told:

You grow with your tasks. Who chops wood creates wood chips (meaning: When you work you make mistakes). Open your eyes and switch the light on in your mind (meaning: Don’t panic you can do it. Just take a breath and think for a moment.)

granddad's birthday

And yes most of these inventions, which are very specific to my family, came from my granddad. Another one usually aimed at particularly learning-resistant individuals was:

He is as thick as Scheffler’s pig.

Scheffler (a local farmer) had brought his sow to our farm for some hanky panky with a boar aka breading. Pigs can be really nervous and the dog had frightened the pig. Subsequently the pig panicked and ran away towards the big farm gate. One wing of the gate was open the other one closed. Yup—the pig ignored the open wing and tried to squeeze through the closed one. Got stuck. And the farmers had a heck of a task to free the poor creature. From that day on, someone who was really learning-resistant would be called as thick as Scheffler’s pig.

Yes we do not only remember our human relatives and friends, growing up on a farm, turned small-hold, means we have hundreds of…

stories about animals. Most of which are hilarious:

One of our Rottweiler’s had broken his leg, and rather enjoyed all the attention and fuzz made over him while in the cast. When the cast came off my mom and grand-dad would always ask him: ‘How is your paw* my poor dog?’ and the dog would lift his leg to get some well deserved cuddles. Only after a while he forgot, which of his paws he had broken so he would just randomly lift one.

We most fondly remember Paul—my tomb cat. Who survived being washed in the washing machine several times, got run over by a motor cycle, came home with the tire-prints across his body and bleeding from the mouth, got his chest torn open in a fight, lost half of an ear, only had two teeth left and still lived to be 18 years.

But we do not only remember the fun things. We argue, we fight, and occasionally bang doors closed. My family is very passionate. They are incredibly supportive to whatever my sister or I decide to do—but they would give us the run for our money. They will not simply accept decisions. You would have to make your case, argue, convince, show that you are aware of the positives AND the negatives of the decision: translated into: you know about the consequences. They still may not agree with you but let you jump into the water anyway, standing on the shore with a lifebelt.

Some time ago when I read into identity negotiations, I realized that our yearly gatherings and story telling, create an incredibly strong identity. All these stories anchor us to one another but also to our selves. I carry the legacy of strong independent women, and of men who were true partners. Feminism is still a concept I despise, because declaring I am a feminist would mean to negate that I grew up in an environment where gender did not play a role in my identity discourse. Who I am was linked to what I would do, how hard I would work and what I wanted out of life—not my gender.

My great-granddad: master black smith, whose wife (born 1895) owned a bicycle shop and a petrol station

All these stories create a safe space

When I feel down or discouraged you bet I will find at least three stories in my family that have dealt with such a situation or similar pain, discouragement or sadness. I become reminiscent and draw strength from family history. The identities of my ancestors smoothly entwine with my own, making me stand on firm ground, permitting me to go ahead with whatever challenge I want to take on.

Story telling in family history, I think, is one of the strongest identity discourses there is. Somehow my family established this end of year ritual, where we revise, edit, reflect on what happened during the past twelve months. We link it with stories much older, learn our lessons, learn to laugh about our mistakes, argue, fight, and make up. So the new year can bring what ever challenge and battle it may:

we will have an armor of stories.

*Well they said Pfötchen which means tiny little paw

Categories: Teaching

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Nathalie Sheridan

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