Woodside Story: Ancestors

The gold mine of family stories has probably been with you all along.


So your mother was an opera singer who married an American G.I., and yet continued to keep her bonds with her arty and famous family members in Milan? And, get this: During World War II, that hideous Mussolini put out word not to shoot, during a typical roundup, any of her kin? And as much as Mama’s family despised that despot, did they not chuckle at his high regard?

This happens to be the background of a brilliant musician here on the Island, who shows her respect for this lineage by diving into the beautiful language of her Milanese roots. You should hear her when she interacts with Salvatore of the same-named restaurant in Vineyard Haven, himself from Naples, and when the two of them chatter away, you really wish you could see subtitles.

I’ve long believed that stories within families connect us to a long-gone past that otherwise we’d only discover in history books — plus our own tales lend extra color and context. And it tells us more than details of cultural interest: We learn about our own character as passed along in DNA, and from whatever we’ve picked up in these ancestral stories and taken to heart.

In my own family, my personal guardian angel and relative-worth-emulating was my Great-Grandma Olga. She visited my family in California, when my dad took her and me fishing in a cute lake in Malibu Canyon. I was 5. She returned to her family in Lowell, and shortly thereafter passed away. Now here’s Olga’s salutary background: In the late 1880s in Lithuania, her father, who’d put down roots in America, sent for her mom and six siblings. Then, uh-oh, Mother died suddenly, and Olga, at 12 the eldest child, had to roll up her sleeves and sail on the high seas with her brothers and sisters to join Daddy. Once reunited, she kept her sleeves rolled, and raised those kiddos. See how capable she was? That’s the trait I most take to heart. But she wasn’t a drudge; as a grownup married woman with another half-dozen kids of her own, she loved jokes and pranks and playing cards. And apparently her vocabulary had its fun, rough edges.

I adore this ancestor! And I believe that those of us old folks with similar ties to our past have greatly benefited by knowing anything about these worthies in our little dynasties. I mean, here you were yourself, born a way-long time ago, but by connecting with these relatives from, say, the 1860s during the Civil War in America, you have a deeper understanding of what made this U.S. of A. It might even let you envision yourself as Scarlett O’Hara in umpteen petticoats racing from Tara.

I mentioned this notion to a neighbor here at Woodside — of bedecking ourselves with the traits of long-ago relatives, and she shook her head, flatly stating that nothing like that had materialized in her own background. But then, as I nosed around with pointed questions, she recalled her grandma from Taunton, who until the age of 80, used to, every winter, drive all the way down to Florida. “See?!” I cried. “I knew there’d be something, some cool relative!” And I asked if she’d derived oomph from this stalwart lady. This neighbor who waits for new knees so she can hike farther afield also drives here, there, and everywhere.

That’s how it works. Now scratch your head, and think of all your most awesome ancestors. You don’t have to be descended from Elizabeth I of England to know how to send ships out to fight the Spanish Armada. I jest, of course, but you can see how noteworthy souls in our own lineage bring us comfort and joy.

And they don’t all need to be stellar. Sometimes it’s the goofy ones that transport us to earlier times. For instance, in this day and age when technology makes idiots of most of us aged boomers, it’s fun for me to recall a story about a great-great-uncle back in the Chicago of the 1920s who lived with my mom’s family on the South Side. This Uncle Moishe hated the new-fangled telephone they’d installed, but he was enjoined, if home alone, to answer when it rang. So he’d pick up the receiver and shout in an Old World Yiddish accent, “No one’s home!” before hanging up with a bang.

So whether you’re young or middle-aged, or old, like a whole bunch of us at Woodside Village, rack your brains for these stories, and learn from them. About yourselves and your adjacent loved ones. I can say this as a lifelong professional writer: We love stories! Everyone on the planet loves stories! God loves stories, I’m certain of that, otherwise there wouldn’t have been hieroglyphics eons ago, and traveling poets like Homer, and the printing press of 1436 and, nowadays, bookstores and libraries and Netflix. But it’s your own family’s ghosts and goblins and fairies and all-around cutie-pies that help you to know yourself.