My mother-in-law died in the first week of September. Joyce Edmonds was 87.
Holly’s mom was diagnosed with cancer about the same time as my mom, a year and a half ago. Surgery gave her more time, and she lived well in these last months and weeks. Considerable time was spent at the lake, with three generations gathered around her. There was a last and significant visit to the home farm at Major, and to rekindle memories of retirement years in Kerrobert with her soul mate, Harold. She died in her daughter’s home with five of her seven children gathered around her. It was a good and holy time. I was privileged to be part of it.
The service was held in a small and warm Anglican church where Joyce had invested her spirituality in her Saskatoon years. As the large family stood on the lawn in front of the church, greeting folks, receiving condolences, several older ladies came by and offered their own delightful and intimate stories of their relationship with Joyce. During the service, Joyce’s eldest grandchild (our eldest as well) pledged to keep on being family in the manner that Harold and Joyce had modelled family.
After the memorial service, and a lunch with the community that had gathered, we climbed into vehicles for the drive to the Major cemetery. It was a two-and-a-half-hour trip west, almost to the Alberta border, and included risking our lives on infamous Highway 51. I was in charge of the brief burial service there, and had arranged for my youngest brother and his wife, plus a cousin and a friend, to meet us there and help in the closing time with a few songs.
My cousin Big Mike is a welder, musician and philosopher, with as gentle a spirit as you will encounter. At the close of the service, he sauntered over, wordlessly shook my hand, nodded, then said, “So that’s it, then.”
I knew instinctively what he meant. Between Holly and I, we are now without parents.
Mike spoke again. “I guess that makes you the storytellers in the family now.” We moved on, and I neglected to ask him to expand on his words. I will rectify that the next time we meet.
Later that night, as we drove the dark miles back to Prince Albert, I did my own processing, my own wondering, my own dreaming of what lay in those words.
“That makes you the story tellers in the family now.”
Going to visit grandparents in my youth was about many things. One that was stood out at the center of those things was wisdom. Grandparents were about wisdom. Their years gave them that. That wisdom shaped the values within the family. The stories they told informed the family of who they were, of whose they were, of what was important, of what could and should be discarded. Stories told and sometimes stories untold individuated us from other families. This is who we were, who we ultimately are.
And now it’s our turn to step into that role? Yeeesh!
And yet, for at least the youngest half of my grandchildren, Holly and I are the oldest ones that they will ultimately remember in our family. If age equals wisdom, we better start faking it!
We are now the storytellers. We have major influence on how we will order ourselves as a family. We will tell the stories that will significantly define family culture. We will model how other’s stories are interpreted, what are the values to be reaped, what is the chaff to be winnowed out. We will model when and how to listen, when and how to speak. We will at times show passion, and at other times restraint. Whether we will it or not, these expressions will be entered into the family narrative. They will impact the generations who follow.
Intimidating? Hell, yes!
One of the biggest, and most obvious lesson to be learned, is that we inflict our unfinished issues on others. That would be most true with the ones who look to us for wisdom, for stories on which to shape values. Issues of anger, suspicion, fear, unworthiness, these will colour our stories, and ultimately become our stories. As storytellers, we are called to live in such a way that every event, every relationship, causes us to look honestly at ourselves. A story about the struggles of another must be a story of looking at ourselves. “How is that about me? What do I need to learn about myself?” Those who look to us for stories, for wisdom, deserve no less.
Another significant lesson, a lesson that also needs to be at the core of our stories, is that everyone in those stories is doing the best they can. Describing others in “less than” terms insures that our listeners will also be seduced into forming value judgments of others. And counseling businesses and justice businesses and incarceration businesses will continue to thrive.
This image of “storytellers” feels somewhat like the First Nations term, “Elders.” That again is a little frightening to me. I’m prepared to be challenged on that. But I have some wise old First Nations friends, and their stories feel important, like something that might impact values. That’s a good thing. My values are always up for a little impacting.
What stories do you tell? Who is hearing them? What is being learned? Who is being changed? If we are indeed created in a holy image, are we moving toward that? Or away?