The Slippery Pit | blog
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mourning veil by Angelina

Unveiling My Family Story

“We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along [in the memory of others] for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations.”

Widower Max Morden, in John Banville’s novel The Sea, likens grief to a gene passed down.

Similarly, Family Constellations, a therapeutic method theoretically founded in what psychologists call The Ancestor Syndrome, recognizes that a psycho-emotional dynamic can span multiple generations. That is, present-day problems may be influenced by a trauma suffered by an ancestor, even if the living are unaware of the original event.

At 35, my mother’s maternal grandmother, Maria, lost her husband, Salvatore Luciano, to Spanish influenza in the 1918 pandemic, and wore black every day until her own death at 96. She sent her two oldest children—Henry (8) and Lucy (6)—to school dressed in black until a teacher informed her that their classmates were making fun of them. My mother recalls that Lucy, my grandmother, loathed the color black, which explains why she’d regularly chide, “Why do you always wear black?” during my urban-chic fashion phase.

Have I been carrying the legacy of grief in my immediate family—and for them? My mother and my twin sister are cheerful, lighter-hearted than I. I’ve obsessed about death in my mind and on the page (; I mourn the slightest personal hurt or disappointment.

I’ve been wondering about grief as my family story—and anticipating a long-overdue release from it—as I prepare for this month’s Guac & Chips interview (Aug. 1) and Ripen Your Writing teleseminar (Aug. 15) with Jerrie Hurd, author of the forthcoming Pay Attention to the Fairy Godmother: How Family Stories (Mis)Shape Us.

What family story has (mis)shaped you—and your writing? Share in the comment box below.

*Photo thanksacado to Angelina:



  1. Marj, your post worked to rip away curtain upon curtain as I look with new eyes at my own family stories. I need to let that revelation marinate a bit more before it’s ready to be shared. In the meantime, thank you.

  2. Marj, what an extraordinary revelation–thanks for sharing it! I feel profoundly shaped by family stories, but the kicker is, many were unspoken! Just as you say that you were asked why you always wore black, I sensed entire ancestral tomes beneath a remark from one relative or another. But I rarely had access to what sourced these remarks because my family was so secretive. It was like pulling teeth to get a family story out of them. I once begged my uncle to tell me what his (and my mother’s) grandmother was like, and all he would say was “She made a lot of pies.” !

    • “Ancestral tomes”–that’s a wondrous phrase, Gail.

      Your experience has me wondering if structural (body language) conversations/stories are passed down, too, and if we put our mind, heart, and body to the task, could we name those silent/unspoken conversations. (I’m gonna ask Jerrie Hurd a few comment boxes down!)

  3. I left home at 17, leaving young parents, four siblings ranging in age from 12 to 22, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. My once- or twice-a-year visits in the ensuing decades have been brief and busy. About ten years ago, I began to feel an inner prodding to “go home again.”
    As I tried to ignore it, the feeling grew more insistent. I tossed it a bone in late 2005 by buying a house in my hometown, even as I continued to live elsewhere. Slowly, and not all that consciously, I began to wade into the murky waters of my early years as I stayed in my mostly empty hometown house a few days every now and then overseeing its much-needed renovation. I gradually lengthened those visits to weeks at a time, hiring and firing carpenters, painters, sanders, cabinetmakers, roofers, plumbers, electricians, glazers, landscapers, stonemasons, tile layers and so on, intense activity I’d eventually realize was mostly to distract myself from the real work at hand. I’d stay until I “had” to go, lock up, and return to my “real life.”
    Finally, in September of 2010, with much of the renovation finished and the house not just habitable but more me than any other house I’ve owned in my lifelong love affair with houses, a few hours ahead of the moving van, I arrived with the intention of staying a year at most. I’ve been here nearly three years now, and think I’ve nearly finished what, barely consciously then, I came back to do.
    I don’t think it necessary to go home again to heal thyself, but some of us can, Thomas Wolfe, and some of us clearly must. What I had run away from nearly a half century ago wouldn’t rise to consciousness elsewhere. And, if someone had told me what I’d discover once I returned and its astounding value, I’d not have believed her. Martha Stout, Ph.D, in The Myth of Sanity writes that in order to heal our pasts we don’t need to recover all our memories, just enough of them to understand our story. I’ve done that.
    I’ve not done it alone. Since my return here, our magical universe has assisted me with coincidences, serendipities, dreams, memories—whole and fragmented, insights, conversations, books, old Bibles,, cemeteries, and “chance” encounters. The incomplete jigsaw puzzle that was once me now feels like a whole picture, as if I have fitted in long-missing, large, and clarifying pieces. Just this past Saturday, my high school class held a reunion. Hanging out for many hours with childhood, adolescent, and teenage friends added what feels like maybe the final piece of my puzzle. I get it now, maybe not all of it, but what I now see is no longer a murky river shrouded in fog, but a wide, clear, swift one flowing beneath a cloudless azure sky. In spite of occasional evidence to the contrary, I’ve always known I was whole and all right. I now see I’m more than that. I’m amazing — and no doubt so are you.

    • I love this, Melynda: “What I had run away from nearly a half century ago wouldn’t rise to consciousness elsewhere.”

      I’ve been calling those niggly arisings “ghosts,” and I’ve stopped short at interrogating them. They show up when I return to the places I’ve lived, but I’ve been attributing them to nostalgia because they disappear when I leave the place. Your statement has me reframing them as “incompletions” that only go into hiding, so I’m now committing myself to mining and illuminating them–whether a family story or one authored by me–toward completion. Thank you for your story. xo

  4. Grief as a family story is a powerful idea. Not one I’ve entertained, but I think that could become a family theme if it’s repeated often which is what turns an incident into a family story.
    Our families teach us to grieve–what is appropriate, etc. etc. They also teach us humor. That’s not to say we don’t laugh at different things but we learn to laugh often or not-at-all from how our family values funny.
    Thanks for sharing this, Marj.
    Look at the valuable conversation it has opened.
    We really, really need to do this kind of sharing about our family stories.
    Thanks for getting it started!!
    Thanks for just plain getting it.

    • Thanks to YOU, Jerrie, for your nuanced take on family stories. It’s really got me paying attention differently, more deeply. Just last night, at a public event where poetry was read by elementary-age kids, teens, and adults, I was captivated by how engaged one little girl, maybe 4 years old, was during the entire event. I particularly noticed when she laughed: she was alert to when the crowd laughed; she was already becoming a “proper” social being. I get that imitation isn’t anything new, but it underscores the fact that our selves are “made of stories, not of atoms,” to paraphrase Muriel Rukeyser’s oft-quoted line, and that our stories are familial AND cultural AND national–and that, ultimately, we can rewrite them and then live into the revised stories if we can resist the drift, pull, familiar comfort of the old ones.

      Question for you, Jerrie, arising from Gail Storey’s comment: Are silent/unspoken stories passed down–for example, secrets and structural “conversations” (body language)? The Family Constellations model would say “yes” about the unknown stories, given that it holds that the successive generations don’t have to know the original event to be influenced by its trauma. Would still love your take on it.

      • Yes, kids sense things that are never told to them. Very often, even if the story is not told the family can incorporate certain responses to the untold story that get passed down and repeated.

        The examples I have are from my own family.

        My father returned from World War II with what today is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (think I have that label right). That was never discussed. My father never talked about the war and never received any treatment, and no one in the family ever talked about what happened to him. Even years after his death, I had to drag the information out of my mother. She feels strongly that nothing good can came from knowing bad stuff. She won’t even entertain the idea that bad things can come from not knowing.

        I all fairness, I need to add that my father was never mean, didn’t drink, and was rarely physical, but he could become irrational–something that can be frightening to a child. So I learned from a young age to tiptoe around him–so to speak. Here’s the kicker: I didn’t know that was different than other families. Kids don’t have any other reference than their immediate family. So, now, think about the expectations I took into my dating years.

        The stories need to be told–explained–something. Not talking about something doesn’t make it go away. And it will affect the next generation(s).
        So we need to talk. Or, in my case, when you get older, you need to ask. It’s always healthier to have things out in the open.

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