By Rick Lingberg
We’ve all heard the stories about how our dads had to walk five miles to school uphill, both ways, in blizzards. Sure.
Or, how about Uncle Charlie and his four brothers who shared one small bed in an attic where the windows leaked and the walls had no insulation. Remember him lamenting how they had to shake snow off the quilts when they got up in the morning? Oh, brother!
Wait a second, as a very young man my “Gramps” DID build a barn. But, more about that later.
Is it really necessary to repeat those old family stories? “We’ve heard that one a hundred times!”
Studies by psychologist Marshall P. Duke of Emory University shed light on the importance of having a good family narrative. Says Duke,
Even if the stories are embellished a bit for dramatic effect, hearing tales of family experiences is beneficial to the next generation and may help them become stronger adults. These oral histories (told in bits and pieces over the years and not in lecture form) gives young people a solid foundation when it comes to dealing with adversity in their own lives.
In 1978, I photographed and recorded an interview with my grandfather, E. Walter “Gramps” Lingberg. He was 90 years old at the time. One thing he told me was how his dad (my great-grandfather, Olaf, a Swedish immigrant) had homesteaded in Clay County, South Dakota, in 1869. He recalled that they lived for several years in a dugout until they finally built a house.
"He bought this 80 [acres] that he built on. I think he paid $600 for it. I've got the title, with U.S. Grant's signature on it."
Historical note : Ulysses S. Grant was the commanding general of the United States Army during the American Civil War. Grant worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln to lead the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy. He later was elected the 18th President of the United States.
Dr. Duke also stresses the importance of these stories being told orally at family gatherings (be it dinners, vacations, or parties) in order for them to have their full impact. He says that sharing stories like this one that can make a real difference in how people handle what life puts before us.
As a young man, Gramps was given an assignment to build a barn. In the early part of the 20th century American farms were powered by real horse power. It was critical that they had adequate facilities to shelter and feed the livestock. It was an absolute necessity that one must be built so Gramps got the job. He said it took them the “biggest part of the summer” to build the barn.
"I drew the plans for the barn."
Somewhere along the line, with only eight years of education Gramps had picked up the ability to design, plan and build a barn. Remember, there was no Internet or computers to assist him; just a pencil, some paper, a tape measure, a keen mind and a determination to get the job done.
"Erick Dahlin cut the trees and hauled them over to Andrew Samson. He had a saw mill. I hauled the lumber home from there and piled it up in a pie and put one on top of the other and put boards between to dry it."
Dr. Duke poses the question: “Why does knowing such things as where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?” He responded to his own question, “The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family.”
Have you ever been expected to complete a task when given seemingly inadequate resources?
"I painted the whole barn with a 16 foot ladder. The front end of the barn was up about 33 feet. "
Then I think about Gramps' story.
"I just hung on the hay door and painted part of it."
“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continues, “is called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.'”
Dr. Duke says that children who have the most self-confidence have what he calls a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.
At 90 years old and nearly blind, my Gramps was looking at a vintage photograph of a beautiful stallion. He commented. . .
"I can't see it, my eyes won't let me see it."
And yet his mind's eye was in perfect focus.
"That's King, he was a grey horse...he was a pretty horse."
Gramps died in 1980. Eventually, the farm was sold and the barn was torn down and all traces of the Lingberg family homestead would be gone forever . . . or would it?
On February 27, 2016 we welcomed a new Lingberg to the family. She’s nearly 129 years younger than Gramps. When she’s old enough, she’ll watch Gramps and hear him, just like I did in 1978. I wonder how his words will shed light on what she’s experiencing.
So, if you want a happier family, then create, refine, retell and preserve the story of your family’s moments, whether they are happy, sad, challenging, victories or loses. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.
Do you have a strong family narrative?
In case you missed them:
|13 Seconds of Dad in My Pocket||Do You Remember Your First Car?||The Uncle Buddy I Hardly Knew|