On May 28, 1956, my parents, sister, and brother boarded the Waterman at Rotterdam, bound for Wellington, New Zealand to start a new life as assisted emigrants. I was born in New Zealand along with 3 other siblings. It was a wonderfully happy existence in small town New Zealand as a child and I am grateful for the start that I was given in life in our new country. I admire my parents for their bravery and motivation to work towards a better life in such a foreign environment in which they were not even able to speak the language initially.
There was a downside to this experience. I never met or knew any of my grandparents and I didn’t know my extended family well, even after visiting with them as a 15-year-old. During that visit, it was my turn to speak haltingly in a language that was foreign to me, even though this was the land of my ancestors. Over the years, I have often asked myself, “Am I Dutch or a New Zealander? Or both?” I have since lived in France for a period and felt a deep connection to that country. I am now living in the USA and last year became a United States citizen. So much to choose from, right?
I have created and lived stories in my life in each place and I have come to realize just how important that my history is to me, not just my personal life but the stories of those who have come before me. All of these stories are part of who I am and how I identify myself. It continues to be one of the most difficult parts of my parents’ emigration to New Zealand, that I have missed out on so many of the stories of my family. Yes, there are a few, but the disconnect from my Dutch family physically has also meant a disconnect from much of that history.
Glimpses of these stories sometimes come to me. A few years ago, a cousin shared a story of my father when he was a young man that I did not know. Dad was one of 10 siblings, almost all boys. One day, as a young man he was fighting with his older brother when he threw a potato at him and missed. The potato flew out of the open front door and, in a case of poor timing, hit an elderly woman in the head as she was passing by and knocked her out. When I heard the story, I was amused but also hungry to learn more. I had heard that my Dad could be a little wild at the time and that he was introduced to my Mum in the hopes of finding someone who could calm him down a little. I should add that this plan clearly succeeded.
For the past 40 years I have been researching my family history and have found ancestors going back almost 400 years. A recent count saw 108 million visits to genealogy sites a year, indicating that I am not on my own in wanting to know my ancestors. But my hunger is not satiated because I want to know who these people were, what life they lived, their beliefs. I have many names, but few stories.
In my lifetime, my children have rolled their eyes as I tell one of my personal “stories” yet again, having heard some of them many times. I have been writing a compilation of all those stories in recent times. It is my hope that my grandchildren and their children will come to know who I am through my history that I share. However, writing for posterity is not my only motivation. As I write, my sense of who I am solidifies. Perhaps this is an end-of-life experience, but I don’t believe so. What would we know of our world history if journals and other records were not kept by history’s greats?
So why are histories so important, not only to me but to many others? Stories not only give us connection with our families, but they give us insight into who we are. I connect with my history. In turn I develop meaning from each account and in so doing my identity has matured. Strangely perhaps, they provide a sense of stability and security as we become more than our present self. They provide a sense of continuity from our past, to our present and then on into our future. Studies have shown that telling our family stories provides greater emotional resilience for the receiver. Look at this interesting article on the subject:
“A study published in the journal Family Process looked at the role of stories to shape our sense of self, based on the idea that “narratives create meaning and provide perspective on our past and on our lives and thus are clearly related to sense of self.” The study supported the premise that family narratives “provide understanding, evaluation, and perspective on the events of our lives … although family communication and interaction in other contexts and settings is clearly important, the role of family narratives may be particularly critical for children’s developing sense of self.”
We are no longer isolated beings but connected souls with a more real and foundational understanding of who we are.
What are some of your stories?
We'd like to thank Marianne Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity.