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Multicultural "Fish" Stories
by Francesca Biller-Safran
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Award-winning Investigative Journalist and Columnist with experience reporting breaking news, longer features and op-eds about race, politics, business, socioeconomics, arts and culture, ethics and parenting issues for newspapers, magazines, radio and websites. Awards include The Edward R. Murrow Award, two Society of Professional First Place Journalism Mark of Excellence Awards and two Golden Mike Awards for Excellence in Hard News and Best Series Reporting.

Looking back, I can remember listening to the stories told to me by my parents and grandparents—long, colorful tales of a time long ago I can only envision.

Vivid imagery comes to life through imagining their experiences as if they were my own, as the stories are told with longing and prescence.

Story telling in families is an invaluable way of insuring that history is passed down through the generations. This is a hidden and yet beloved secret in all families- the secret and often tall tales told when company is not around.

I will never forget long summer evenings when my Japanese grandfather told stories with his Herculean, animated and accented voice. He told of wrestling sharks on his fishing boat, beating them off with his bare hands. He said he needed to fend them off so he could fish for his family’s dinner.

As a small child, he was the bravest man I knew, as his tan, barely wrinkled face imitated the faces of apparent monstrous six-foot sharks, while my siblings and I looked on with amazement and abashment.

Whether or not these were “fish stories” or not didn’t matter; as a child, I believed him, and as an adult, I cherish them. And to this day, I treasure these vivid tales about what it was like to support a family of seven during the depression in the Hawaiian countryside.

What mattered was that my grandfather and members from both sides of my family across generations took time to pass on any stories at all, whether these were perfectly accurate or elaborate.

This not only gave us a sense of life in a different era, but helped us understand and appreciate the lives we were experiencing now- weaving imagery and narration into our hearts and minds of generation’s past.

Visions also come to mind about my father’s family; black and white images of 1940’s Los Angeles when he and my grandfather wore tailor-made suits, firm derby hats and shined leather shoes. They took spontaneous train rides into small towns, just the two of them- floating memories like a perfect, orchestrated movie.

Memories of surviving difficult times also prevail, with my mother working on a farm before school each day from age four before sunrise. My father also tells us how he remembers working from a young age, mowing lawns and working as the neighborhood paper boy at age seven.

We listened intently as children, as we heard the same tales likely told over generations, slightly changing and morphing with each story teller.

Jewish uncles began businesses in 1900’s New York, while Japanese great-grandparents worked in fields to afford their own farmlands, never attending school, never looking back.

We didn’t interrupt though we could finish our parents’ sentences. My father spoke about how he was expected to be seen and not heard as a child, even though we were allowed open conversation and endless questions.

Whether my grandfather was placed in a Boy’s home so my great-grandmother could travel the world isn’t nearly as important as my father’s adventurous and cautious tone as he tells the story.

Truthfully, most words spoken by parents are in fact heard, while actions are also seen, ensuring that valuable history, albeit often elaborated, is passed down to the next generation.

When willing to listen, the stories continue; such as my mother’s recent memory of a cousin in the 1930’s who accidentally killed himself with a gun left behind by his father.

My own children now sit with open eyes and ears as we tell tales about our own youth, and those of other family members that drift in and out of consciousness like so many colorful, live ghosts. Each night, they ask for another story about when we were young, a “very, very long time ago.”

Our daughters find it hard to believe we survived life without cell phones, the Internet, or cable television. “We only had five channels when we were children, all in black and white,” we tell them.

This seems almost too difficult to hear.
Therefore, I will save the story for a later date about how their great, great-grandfather was homeless without a father to tell him any stories at all.

After all, even parents need limits.

Published: Nov 20,2008 21:50
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