Posted by Steve Lettau on Oct 18, 2018

By František Bureš - Rotarian Magazine

My dad and I were on our way south, moving through rolling farmland. The sun was bright and the fields were green. It felt as though we were in a Grant Wood painting, caught between the smallness of our lives and the grandness of the sky. High above, stark white clouds cast shadows on the highway. 

“Are we in Iowa yet?” I asked.

“We’ve been in Iowa for quite a while,” he responded.

“Do you want me to look at the map?”

“If you want to.”

We were also headed back in time, on a rescue mission of sorts. With me I had an audio recorder and a bunch of questions. For several years, I had been researching and writing about stories – about the way we use them to stitch ourselves together with the world around us. But I didn’t have a full picture of my own family’s story. I was sure I could find more pieces that would help me trace the links in the chain leading from my life into the past. 

I had come across some fascinating studies on family stories and the power they have over us. In recent years, researchers have noted that children in families that eat dinner together often have better emotional health and are happier and more resilient than their peers. This has less to do with eating together than it does with the fact that family dinners provide space for stories to emerge. And knowing your family stories can make a real difference in your life.

Researchers asked adolescents questions such as, “Do you know where your parents met?” “Do you know where your grandparents grew up?” “Do you know of something terrible that happened in your family?” 

Those who know the answers to more of those questions, says developmental psychologist Robyn Fivush, “show higher self-esteem, fewer behavior problems, and more resilience in the face of difficulties.” This may be because knowing those things gives them more tools to deal with what life holds in store for them. 

“Adolescents are facing the challenge of figuring out who they are in the world,” Fivush says. “Why am I the person I am? How did I become this way? And a lot of that is about the family I came from. Adolescents use those stories to create models of how the world should look, what a person should be like. We think adolescents are not listening. But they are. They really want these stories.”

Growing up, I knew some stories from my mom’s side of the family but few from my dad’s, other than that they came from what is now the Czech Republic and that occasionally we would eat pastries filled with enough poppy seeds to fail a drug test. 

Over the years I had tried to get him to tell me some family stories. But his accounts were disjointed and hard to follow. In terms Fivush and others use, they lacked narrative “coherence.” 

“Coherence” is a tricky term, but in general it means that earlier episodes in a family’s story cause the later ones. “The critical component of a coherence is that it’s a story that makes human sense,” Fivush says. “It explains human motivations, intentions, and actions.” In other words, such stories tell us why people did things and what happened as a result.

People with more coherent stories about themselves or their families have higher levels of both physical and psychological health. Conversely, depressed people have trouble telling coherent stories, though it’s not clear whether depression causes stories to become incoherent or whether incoherent stories contribute to depression.

“How do you feel about going back?” I asked.

“Oh, fine. When you get there, lots of memories come back that are buried,” he said. “There are good things.”

I was hoping some of those memories would help me start putting together a more cohesive picture. I knew there were some good things, but I knew more about the bad ones: My grandma was depressed and took her own life a few years before I was born. For many years, my dad – her only child – felt responsible. And I didn’t learn any of that until I was an adult. 

Late in the morning, we rolled into Cedar Rapids, a town once filled with Czech immigrants. Today there is still a “Czech Village,” a Czech museum, and a century-old Czech bakery, but most of the Czech speakers are gone.

As we drove around town, looking at houses he remembered, recalling aunts and uncles he loved, he talked about “Grampa Hermanek” (meaning his mom’s grandfather) who had been in the Prussian emperor’s honor guard, until one night there was a fight and someone was killed. He and his wife escaped to Vienna and made their way across Europe, selling the clothes that had been her dowry along the way. They sailed to New York, then headed for Chicago, which had a large Czech community. After a few years, they took a covered wagon to South Dakota to homestead, but quit and came back east to Cedar Rapids, where they could speak their own language. 

“In the Hermanek house, my mother and her aunt Emily, who was like a sister, used to go out quite a bit at night,” my dad said. “Grampa Hermanek didn’t like that and said they should stay home. He called them kurva, which means ‘whore’ in Czech.”

I hadn’t known that, and as I heard these details, I could feel them falling into a kind of order. Their journey had not been an easy one; it was full of hardships and failures as well as some successes. Although there were good times, my grandma’s life, in many respects, was tragic. And according to Marshall Duke, a professor of psychology at Emory University, this is important, because not all family stories are created equal: Some have more power than others. 

Duke divides family stories into three kinds: First are the ascending stories, in which a family comes from nothing and succeeds. Then there are the descending, in which a family experiences hardship, failure, or loss. Last are what he calls the oscillating stories, in which a family’s fortunes rise and fall. These seem to afford the most benefit to later generations of listeners. 

“It helps kids realize that there are ups and downs in life, and that the family they belong to has experienced both ups and downs and overcome the downs,” says Duke. “That’s a good message: If something is going badly, it’s happened before, and we’ll be OK.”

I am probably past the age where I could gain much from such stories. I still liked hearing them; they made my own problems feel small. But the real benefit of knowing your family’s story may be even more basic. 

“It seems to give you a sense of grounding,” says Duke, “a sense of belonging to something larger than yourself, something that has lasted longer than you have lasted. The 10-year-old learns not just about the past 10 years, but the past 60 or 100 years. It’s an ownership of a history that you are both responsible for carrying, as well as continuing.”

We drove one day to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, where we learned that for many people, “the Czech and Slovak journey” started when feudalism was abolished in the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1848 and the first wave of immigrants from those lands came to the United States. We visited a humble late-1800s immigrant house, probably not unlike the one Grandpa Hermanek lived in. 

I asked for information about our family, and the librarian came back with a “Bures Family History” pamphlet compiled in 1971 – the year I was born, and 110 years after Jiří Bureš arrived on a farm southeast of Cedar Rapids – where the “Buresh Cemetery” is still located.

Here was a tangible link, a direct line from the old world to my world, stretching back over 150 years. As we walked around, as I collected pieces of the past, I could feel them being woven into a line that felt stronger, thicker, more complete, more real. After all, isn’t that why we seek out our family stories in old ledgers and even our DNA? To trace our connection to something larger than just ourselves: to history, to humanity?

We left the museum and walked down the street to the Czech Village and stopped in the Village Meat Market & Cafe for lunch, where we ordered schnitzel and goulash and talked while we ate.

“When you think about all the Czech people in Cedar Rapids, do you feel like you are still part of that?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m a piece of it.”

We left the restaurant and bought some poppy seed pastries at the bakery across the street. Then we went back to the car and headed out of town. As we drove away, I could feel the past pulling at me in a way I never had before: For the first time, I felt I was a piece of it too. 

- Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.