What is a story worth? Gift from an only son brings back rich family history

By Teddy Robertson

The elders in my young life were storytellers. The dinner table, an oval oak dropleaf large enough for candlesticks and a centerpiece, was the usual setting for their mealtime yarns. But I was never shunted away during parties when adult conversation was going on. I was an only child and most of my parents’ friends were childless, so evidently my presence was overlooked.

In any case, eternal values were drilled into me elsewhere; twelve years of Catholic education saw to that. Looking back now, the classroom and the clergy were no match for colorful adults telling terrific stories, highball in hand.

Today, my son Chris (also an only child) lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, some nine hours’ drive from me in Flint. Last Christmas, he gifted me with an online subscription to something called “StoryWorth.”  Its concept is simple: a weekly email prompt that can collect “your loved one’s favorite stories and memories and preserves them in a beautifully bound book. The subscription sends questions via email . . . to capture these precious memories — even the ones that are hard to talk about — over the course of one year, culminating in a gorgeous book,”  according to a recent article in CNN. 

Teddy Robertson with her son Chris. (Photo submitted by Teddy Robertson.)


Earnest pitch meets Boomers’ need

StoryWorth capitalizes on the ease of online communication, boomers’ need to talk to their alphabet generation kids and grandkids, and a last-minute gift idea for desperate offspring. But the pitch from product developer Nick Baum is earnest and practical: “StoryWorth’s real value is its ability to bring families closer through stories that were, before now, untold,” he told the New York Times in 2014.

StoryWorth also provides some relief from Facebook. Nick Baum’s idea contrasts with that of Mark Zuckerberg who told NBC’s “The Today Show” that he started Facebook because he “just figured it would be really cool if there was some website that I could go to that would tell me a bunch of information about my friends and the people around me.”

Graphic source: www.StoryWorth.com

Ironically for young Zuckerberg, my generation has colonized Facebook. Grandchildren and  gardening, travel and food, worthy causes and fundraising predominate in my feed, at least. I must now chase my kid and his adult friends on other platforms. At least, Baum offers a product that aims somewhere beyond “really cool.” Unlike Zuckerberg, Nick Baum lives at somewhat removed from his public; he resides in his native Sweden and posts periodically on LinkedIn.

Questions become weeklong puzzles

Four months into my StoryWorth experience, I’ve written fourteen responses to questions Chris has chosen.  When a question didn’t appeal to me, I could compose my own. “StoryWorth” lets me continue to edit my “stories” since most are written quickly and need revision.  Some questions become a weeklong puzzle—I type a couple of bullets, think about them for a few days, and then write several paragraphs on a Sunday evening, my “soft” deadline before the next question pops up in my email.

When Chris posed the question “what did I learn from my parents,” I was struck by how little I muster from conventional parenting and how much I learned through stories, both theirs and ones overheard.  My parents did not preach or exhort me to embrace certain values. Or, if they did, my memory has shelved them in favor of more effective teaching: vivid anecdotes.

A few stories were glamorous, like a ballet dancer neighbor who earned a living doing shows in San Francisco nightclubs. She made her own costumes and her husband ran the lights. I can still see her in a skin-tight sheath dress (costume scraps) regaling a dinner party with her stories. Years later I grasped how creativity and chutzpah had compensated for lack of money.

Other stories were bizarre refractions of national experiences like my dad’s lefty pacifist pal who landed in a World War II internment camp in Minnesota. Or a poignant one about an uncle selling Good Humor ice cream on Manhattan sidewalks ­— the only job he could find during the Depression.

I could identify with stories about younger people from my family past, like a seventeen-year-old Ohio boy who ran away from the family farm and found work with itinerant Basque sheepherders out west. Then there was a woman in her twenties who traveled alone by river and rail from Kentucky to Idaho seeking adventure and, I surmised later, a husband.

Stories reveal disjunction of generations

StoryWorth’s process nudged me to re-focus stories my parents shared about their growing up years. Many stories implied something they had learned, how persistence and ingenuity got them through life when the realities of Depression and wartime reduced or extinguished their options.

America’s postwar years, my growing up years, brought an illusion of stability, abundance, and opportunity for the aspiring middle class (white, of course). Neither the Cold War, H-bomb, nor Korea unraveled the optimism of the time. My educated and left-wing parents began to make it as well. But when my own generation began to navigate events of the 1960s and 1970s (especially civil rights and the Vietnam war), their hopes for me seemed scarily vague and vast; their stories irrelevant.

I accept that disjuncture of generations now, but still wonder if anything in the stories I have told my son will contain some value that might bolster him in life. Maybe not, or maybe not right now. Chris has hit middle age and its challenges are upon him. I remember his decade in my life and some stories that go with it, but the StoryWorth questions are up to him. It’s better that way.

This month during a phone call with Chris, I got an inkling about something else. In the interest of full disclosure, I now must confide my suspicions: StoryWorth may have been first discovered by his partner, Erin.  No matter. The real gift has been Chris’s intuition that this idea might work for the two of us. Even if it emerged through a Christmas gift-giving panic, that intuition was right on the money.

EVM occasional columnist Theodosia Robertson, emeritus professor from UM – Flint,  can be reached at teddyrob@umich.edu.

Author: Tom Travis

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