Have you ever wondered what makes families vibrant and strong, able to stick together no matter what? I know I have. Recent research uncovers a surprising secret to growing strong, happy families. More about that in a moment. But first a story from our Grandma Tessie. It’s important. You’ll see why.
Last weekend, Grandma seated herself on our hearth, warming her backside in front of the flames.“A long time ago, my grandfather moved from Germany to the United States. He had ten children he left behind with his wife. He wanted to make a better life and would send for them as soon as he saved up enough money.”
She propped her elbows on her knees and shook her head. “He lost everything. His wife died. The economy crashed. He couldn’t send for his children. Instead, his siblings took them in and raised them as their own. Despite his grief, he kept going, trying to rebuild his life. A few years later, he married my grandmother. They had a little girl—my mom. She grew up and married, had children. Then, when I was only ten years old, my dad passed away. Mom was left a widow, trying to support me and my brother and sister all by herself in wartime. It wasn’t easy, but she found work wherever she could.
“When the war ended, she learned that the people of Germany were starving. This was before U.S. pilots started airdropping food into Berlin. Mom still had half-brothers and sisters in Germany and she was worried. How would they survive? No food. No coal to keep warm. There was no one to help them. She had to do something. So she got their addresses from the one half-brother who’d moved to America.”
Grandma leaned forward. “We didn’t have nothin’. But my mother managed to buy peanut butter, honey and powdered milk to send to our German family.” She gave a little laugh. “We found out later, they almost didn’t open the boxes for fear they were bombs. The Americans resented them that much! Well, my mother got letters back, translated into English by a German schoolteacher. She’d told them to spread peanut butter and honey on bread, but they said no—they couldn’t bear to combine them; it was too much of a waste.”
Grandma paused just so we’d understand how hungry her aunts and uncles and cousins must’ve been. And how grateful.
“At the bottom of one of the letters, there was a note from the schoolteacher.
“Please, I don’t want to cause trouble, but I have a brand new baby and my wife can’t nurse. If the baby doesn’t get milk soon, he will die. Could you find someone who’d mail me some of that powdered milk you’ve been sending your brothers and sisters, to save my baby?”
Grandma Tessie bit her lip. “That’s all he asked for, a bit of powdered milk. My mother tried to find someone to help, but no one would.” She gestured wildly. “The Germans had no food! No coal! And what did everyone say? Let ‘em suffer!”
She shook her head and we knew we should never do such a thing, no matter how angry we felt. Then she continued, “My widowed mother, who barely had two nickels to rub together, sacrificed to send powdered milk to Germany for that baby. She got back thank you letters in return, telling her she’d saved his life, that she’d saved her half-brothers and sisters, too. They asked what they could do to repay her. She thought about it and requested her family history so she would know more about her roots. They sent her all the records they could find.” Grandma Tessie sat back on the hearth and folded her hands in her lap. “I just thought you should know what your great-grandma did. I just thought you should know.”
The night wore on, and with it, a sense of hope and a little more kindness in our hearts. Such is the power of story, the power of family history. Research shows that a strong family narrative is vital to creating a close-knit family. Tales of happy times and funny stories build a positive family culture. But even more essential are stories about relatives struggling through trials yet bouncing back. Our kids need to know they come from a heritage of people who stick together when times are tough, who never give up.
Today I asked my 17-year-old son, Chad, what he thought of Grandma’s story. He told me it was awesome. When I asked why, he said, “She overcame the views of her culture to do what was right, even though it was hard.”
Grandma Tessie is full of yarns like these. They sometimes grow in the telling, but they always convey a simple message—you belong to something greater than yourself and you have it in you to grow strong. That’s a message we all need to hear. And I, for one, plan to share it with my family again and again, one tale at a time.
Why do you think stories make such a difference in our lives?