Musings on Grandmothers and the Space of Storytelling

The other day in my Latin American Cultures, Environment and Development class, we participated in a story-telling activity with the guide of a representative from Pachaysana, an NGO working out of Ecuador. We did a series of slightly awkward activities that included making human sculptures and moving around the room as prompted by his direction, activities that they use in their workshops with indigenous communities in the Ecuadorean Amazon. These activities are supposed to elicit a breakdown of differences, increase comfort with others, and explore telling a story with more than words. The importance of story, be it physical or verbal, works as the key in this brand of development work: telling a personal story and listening to someone else’s, recognizing oneself in another, creating connections.

This emphasis on the importance of story-telling (and listening) particularly resonated after last week, when I was called back to Erie, Pennsylvania, a mid-sized industrial town on the shores of Lake Erie, emblematic of the boom and bust manufacturing of the Midwest. While a little grey, broken-down, and shabby around the edges, Erie has been the town I’ve gone back to at least twice a year for as long as I can remember, a town I’ll tell my grandchildren about.

At ninety-nine years old my grandmother, the matriarch of a family that includes eight children (my aunts and uncles), twenty or so grandchildren, and at least ten great-grandchildren (not to mention hundreds of extended family), had passed away peacefully in her home of almost a century.

As goodbyes (and funerals) often prompt, I began to reflect on my life, my family, stories, and most of all, my grandmother and the place she loved more than anywhere else – 919 West 25th St.

As a woman who had lived through her share of hardship, poverty, and (the) depression, grandma’s home was her sanctuary and the place where people near and far came to be greeted by a “Hi, doll”, a slice of pie, a listening ear, and an eager storyteller. Decorated with shamrocks, grandmother-knows-best type knickknacks, and pictures of JFK and Jesus, Marge’s house physically represented our Irish-Catholic roots.
While my grandmother was utterly devoted to the house itself — despite its need of multiple repairs and position in an increasingly deteriorating neighborhood — it was a site where family could gather, stories were recounted, and a familial lore developed. My grandmother lived for the stories that filled this home – the gossip about distant cousins, as told by a niece or nephew stopping by; watching realtors trying to sell the house across the street; or hearing about Elvis’s latest gig (she actually lived next door to Erie’s best Elvis impersonator).

This need to tell, listen, and know stories expanded beyond 919 through the value these stories held for our grandmother and how this was demonstrated and taught to us – Marge’s offspring. And in general, isn’t that why we’re all doing this? And by this I mean researching in the humanities or social sciences, thinking about language and literature, and teaching. Like Pachaysana’s work in Ecuador, the need to have a story and to know another’s in many ways defines us as human and works to break down differences. In one way or another, we’re all seeking out a story that we can connect to and that as small or unimportant as it may seem, matters — whether it’s from across continents or the street.

The banner image for this post shows my grandmother, at 98 years old, in front of 919.

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