Family stories are like piles of fertile compost. They are made up of moments left behind by one generation, and if spread over the right places, can nurture many generations to come.
Holidays are the best times to share those stories. That's when there are enough young people around to encourage the storyteller and enough older people who can set the record straight when the tales get out of hand.
Family stories don't have to be particularly deep or complex to warrant repeating. They may just be a great tale — like the story about the time when, as children, my husband and his best friend ate most of the turkey before dinner one Thanksgiving. They tried to reconstruct the demolished bird with the shattered remnants of a turkey breast, but not before they were discovered and nearly killed by his friend's mother.
Then there are the stories of quiet courage, like how my father rescued a family from a burning house, or how my grandmother discovered she was a businesswoman after my grandfather got so ill he couldn't work. Others are stories of hardship, loss and sorrow.
The stories tie me to my family like an umbilical cord. They nourish my soul and guide my feet. They remind me that I wasn't the first and won't be the last to pass by a brambled pathway. They give my life vintage and pedigree, and a legacy to pass on to my children.
We've used Kwanzaa to celebrate our family stories. Because Kwanzaa has not yet taken on the commercialism of Christmas, it's an amazingly pliable holiday which still can be shaped family by family.
But there are a few parameters: Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits" in Swahili, was created by African-American Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966. It borrows heavily from African values. For each of the seven days following Christmas, families light candles and observe seven Kwanzaa principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. After dinner each night, the family pours libations from a single cup in memory of their ancestors. On the last day of Kwanzaa — New Year's Day —family and friends partake in a feast.
In our family, we celebrate Kwanzaa by giving handmade gifts to friends. And in early December, I start preparing the kids for their Kwanzaa presentation. They usually write a poem or a story about the life of an ancestor. This year, they will not only tell stories, they also will listen: A family member has written a book about the family's journey from Louisiana to Detroit during the Great Migration. They will hear the stories of their family's struggle for a better life, and understand the sacrifices that were made along the way.
At some point during the Kwanzaa week we will go to see Down in the Delta, a film that could become a holiday classic. In her directorial debut, poet Maya Angelou has given us a film about a Chicago family which has forgotten its stories and forsaken its heritage. In Down in the Delta, Mary Alice plays a grandmother who is losing a grip on her alcoholic daughter, Loretta (Alfre Woodard). When the grandmother can hold on no longer, she reaches out for her brother, Earl, in Mississippi, and for the power of family tradition. Earl agrees to take in Loretta and her two children for a summer.
To get the money for the trip South, the grandmother pawns the family's one heirloom — a silver candelabra which had been in the family since Emancipation. "It's up to you to straighten up and get a job so that we can buy it back," she says to Loretta, who suddenly understands that the survival of the family is on her shoulders.
When Uncle Earl meets his city kin at the bus stop, he can immediately see that they are lost and soulless. They are charred trees with shriveled roots, kites trying to fly with no one to hold on to the strings.
Earl takes them home where they meet his wife, Annie. Ravaged with Alzheimer's and unable to remember even her own son's face, Aunt Annie takes one look at Loretta and cries, "Mama!" Annie had peered deep into Loretta's character, and saw something in Loretta that she did not even know was there.
But Loretta just thinks her aunt is crazy. "You need to put her in a home," she whines to her Uncle Earl. But he looks past the cold slap of the comment and says firmly, "She's already home."
As the summer unfolds, so do the values that embody Kwanzaa. Loretta and her children learn about cooperation, unity and faith. They begin to feel rooted in something greater than themselves. They have a noble past, a past that is enshrined in the tale of the silver candelabra. It's a story that has been handed down for 100 years, and when Loretta and her children finally understand the meaning of it, they are empowered by their past.
Down in the Delta is neither a Christmas story, nor does it ever once mention the word Kwanzaa. Yet, the wonder of the season is so alive in this film, no one can see it — no matter what their race or ethnicity — without completely understanding that in history, there is redemption.