Why You Should Tell Your Family Story

Ode to the aerogramme.
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Some questions are simple, straightforward and require no follow-up: What flavor of ice cream do you prefer (cappuccino chip)? Where are you from (Chicago)? Which team do you root for, the Cubs or Sox (Cubs)? So when one of the children I had just been reading to asked, “What’s your favorite color,” I smiled and replied, “ Blue…sky blue.” Before I had a chance to move on to another raised hand, he asked, “Why?” and I was forced to ponder my reason (if any).

I was unprepared by my mind’s Proustian response and tried to stay my tumbling thoughts (at least, for the moment) and furnish an answer that would appropriately satisfy a six-year-old’s curiosity. Later in my car, I immersed myself in a flood of memories until I was in a totally different time and place (probably why I’m not the best driver).

When I tried to visualize my most favorite shade of blue, it wasn’t the shifting bluish-white of the morning sky or the startling blue of the ocean with diamond-like glints or even the cornflower blue crayon I favored as a child. No, the object that was swimming to the surface of my mind was aerogramme blue.

You have to be of a certain age to recall aerogrammes and even then, you might never have had occasion to use or see one. For my son, who thinks of cursive writing as anachronistic, aerogrammes (which no longer exist) are clearly a curiosity. For me, they are both familiar and special.

Aerogrammes were designed for airmail purposes; they were made of a lightweight, blue paper with folds and tabs and gummed flaps. I thought them a marvel of construction, because when you were finished filling up the entire main section and the smaller sections and folded and sealed it correctly, it turned into its very own envelope. It was ready to go, as it also came bearing a pre-printed low-postage stamp with an image of an airplane (leaving no doubt as to its mission). The words Par Avion (meaning by airmail) were also stamped on the front, lending even more of a mystique to the whole endeavor. (These were the first two words of French I learned and perhaps, the reason I became a French teacher.)

My mother left behind a large and beloved family in Israel (as well as a branch in Africa) when she emigrated to the U.S. and wrote to them regularly, filling up countless blue aerogrammes in the days before our current high tech modes of communication. Aerogrammes were ever-present in our home: blank ones fresh from the post office, previously read ones saved neatly in the top left-hand drawer of my mother’s bureau, the one that my mother was in the process of working on at our kitchen table, completed ones on the hall table waiting to begin their journey, and of course, the ones whose blue hue would happily announce their presence among the more mundane pieces of mail awaiting our perusal.

My mother would gently snap up the newly arrived aerogramme and put it aside until she had finished her tasks and could comfortably settle down, a cup of tea at her hand. She would read it carefully, slowly, all the while nodding, smiling and murmuring, just as one would do during an actual conversation with someone you care about. Then she would start again. She would share whatever pieces of news she thought might be of interest to me. I vividly remember her translating some of the Hebrew into English for me, demonstrating how the Hebrew language needs fewer words (and less space) to express the same thoughts.

While disappointments might be shared in those letters, as well as happy news and other tidbits, nothing of an urgent or truly sad nature would surface; news of that magnitude would—and did—arrive in the form of a telegram, so the aura of the aerogramme was never dimmed.

These aerogrammes frequently served as a gateway to family anecdotes and lore. I adored my mother; what was important to her was important to me. She needed me to know and love the extended family, so our conversations often centered on her family of origin. In fact, my mom would quiz me; I would have to name her parents, her siblings, their spouses, and their respective children. As my cousins married, and a new generation emerged, I was meant to learn their names, as well. Although my mother was the youngest child in her family, she assumed the mantle of family historian, and I was a good student. Even today, my cousins will contact me to fill in the gaps.

Recent research has conveyed to us the importance of telling children the story of their family; in fact, a wonderful psychology professor my daughter studied with at Emory University, Dr. Marshall Duke, has done much of the research in this area. He and his colleagues assert that a familiarity with family history is the single biggest predictor of emotional well-being. I know I always had the sense of being part of a larger family…of belonging to something bigger than myself. Apparently, knowing the ups and downs of the family narrative helps build resilience and a heightened ability to confront challenges.

My mother did not read a book or attend a lecture by a psychologist that instructed her to create and share a unifying family narrative. She simply possessed a certain human intuitive wisdom that guided her through her life.

I wonder which sensory cues evoke memories of parents, family, home and love for my children. I try to remember which apocryphal family stories I have wisely passed on to them and realize there are many I have neglected to tell. Perhaps I wanted to protect my children from hearing about particular hardships or I was concerned about being boring or I simply was focused on other things. Of course, it is too late now. Too late to capture their attention. Too late to influence them. Or… maybe not. Yes, my children would receive these stories differently now than they might have years earlier, but hearing them would still be beneficial. An African proverb reminds us, “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” As I still have the opportunity and quite rightly, the responsibility to preserve our family history, I resolve to tell my story to the next generation (or two) and continue this rich legacy. And I know just where to start—with the reason why I love the color blue.

Belinda Brock's book, GG and Mamela, is available on Amazon

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