My time as an undergraduate student at the University of Miami will soon be in my rearview mirror. This semester has sped past me and unfortunately, I haven’t found the time to contribute to this paper as much as I would’ve liked. I wanted my last piece to reflect some valuable parting words— perhaps about the importance of enjoying the classes you take, about the value in talking to professors that inspire you, or about embracing uncertainty if you’re unsure about your future career path. Instead, for my final column, I’ve chosen to write about the importance of storytelling— an act that most people (to varying degrees) participate in, yet appears to be a vanishing aspect of everyday family life.
Growing up, I remember thinking that my family was the most interesting group of people in the world. The stories from my paternal grandmother would transport me to 1950s rural Cuba. I would listen attentively as she spoke about her eight siblings, loving parents and very humble upbringing. Her knack for storytelling overwhelmed my impressionable and imaginative young mind. My paternal grandfather would similarly recount stories about growing up on a farm, being raised by his strict, sometimes overly-harsh dad and ultimately moving away from home to get a better education as an adolescent.
I still relish the moments when these stories come up, and I take every opportunity I get to ask questions, soaking up as much information as I possibly can. I ask questions primarily because I’m genuinely curious, as I’m sure most people are about their family’s history, but also because a part of me understands that when people are gone, they take their stories with them. There’s something tragic about the way some stories make it across the generational divide, while others are never told or remembered, forever lost.
Last week I read a story by James R. Hagerty, who writes obituaries for the Wall Street Journal. He is currently working on his own— not because he expects to die anytime soon, but because he wants to write his own story while he can, instead of leaving it up to family members “who are almost certain to make a hash of it.” He says that most people can’t describe why their father or mother chose one path in life over another.
Although Hagerty is trying to explain why it’s important for people to write about their own lives (even if no one will ever read their story) I think that his insistence that individuals keep a record of their triumphs and humiliations is rooted in a belief that preserving people’s life stories possesses a kind of inherent value. In that regard, Hagerty and I are sympatico. When I listen to family stories, apart from being enthralled by the details of a country I’m not personally familiar with, I feel an almost stressful compulsion to remember all the details— dates, names, the exact sequence of events.
The more I listen, the more I realize that my life story is intimately tied to the life stories of those around me. I’m extraordinarily lucky to have four living grandparents and two great-grandmothers, and turning down an opportunity to learn more about their history— which is also my own— would be a waste.
My own personal story will surely take its own twists and turns, unforeseeable to me at the moment. Perhaps I’ll find the inspiration or direction I need in listening to the life experiences of those I love the most. My intent isn’t to be overly sentimental, but I know that it’s easy for young students (myself included) to get caught up with trying to balance school, work, family and social life.
When you get to go back home for the holidays, or when you find a few spare minutes as you’re making your way to your next class, give your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins a call. Ask them to tell you a story. I promise you won’t regret it.
Alexandra Diaz is a senior majoring in political science and women’s and gender studies.