Tales That Echo Through My Bloodline: Telling Family Stories
November 7, 2018 § 20 Comments
by Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega
In sixth grade, I wrote stories on wide-ruled notebook paper and read excerpts to my friend Coral on our morning walks to my bus stop. Back then, gaps in my memory were filled with settings I conjured up by opening the Thomas Guide, picking a city, and making up events that would take place there. These stories bore no resemblance to what I knew and lived. True stories—treasure troves already imbued to me by blood—didn’t seem appropriate material for anything I’d write. Writing, I thought, would set free my imaginations.
Years later though, on a trip to Mexico when I was 20-years-old, I was offered stories by my aunties and cousins, family memories they entrusted only to me. I knew that I needed to handle them like papel picado, perforated paper cut into beautiful and elaborate designs. My memories now contained the songs of my aunties, the aromas of grease in the air of their Guadalajara kitchens, the tiled floors of places that welcomed me. The impulse to write became electrifying. Their words were prescribed to me like a medicine—an antidote to the tyranny of displacement.
I learned how to tell stories from the ladies in my family—their histories all dotted on a line like birds on a wire, infinitely poised to take flight and ascend over the rooftops of time, and then glide, descending onto my sensibilities. I internalized their memories, their markers of memory, and emboldened them onto the grid of my own story, my space. I didn’t quite know how to shape their memories into the written form, but I knew that I needed to try.
Their stories share a common rhythm, a rich optic for the uncanny which bellows out of the holes of traumas like poverty, neglect, rejection, abuse, prostitution, addiction. These ladies are a relentless force of matriarchs, where men occupy the shadows.
Sensitive to the world that was opening before me, I knew I had to do something with all I was offered. What good was it to be called to write and not write anything about the lives of those that impacted my soul the most? It was too unnerving and utterly selfish to keep the stories buried in the ground. I would need to dive into the great blue sea and search for the diamonds that slipped out of my hands. Too much was at stake.
If you only knew all the things I know, all the stories people I know have shared with me, my aunties would say, you would have a saga no one would ever forget. As I hear this, my heart races faster. I need my equipment. I need my gear. I need to listen deeply to save these diamonds in the sea from oblivion.
I remember a sense of dread—not about the content of the stories—but about my inability to remember them, to record them accurately. I fretted about misplacing my notebooks, my sensibility, my empathy. I would lose sleep and feel the urgent tug of responsibility burden my shoulders. I had the relentlessness of a journalist, but the isolation of a creative writer.
I’m certain now that the tales that echo through my bloodline are stories that were meant for me to hear. Otherwise, why would my aunties ever unearth a past so traumatic that time would be the salve to keep it from resurfacing? I learned not to fear their pasts, as dreadful as those pasts may have seemed, because I realized that their legacies were not exclusive to our family.
Many others of their generation tell their own stories, and they are just as haunting as ours. There are stories trapped in the confines of family secrecy, or shame, that I wrestle with and don’t need to tell, despite my disbelief in coincidences, in chance, in mistakes. I’ve recorded stories told to me by aunties and my mother; I don’t have the appropriate rhythm or recall that these storytellers do, but what I do have are vignettes—snapshots captured by the speed of a camera’s shutter. I can place them, then, into stories of my imagination where my pen meets the paper. I complete them with my own stroke of color to make something new.
“She took a small step over the curlicues and geometric patterns of the olive and blue encaustic tiles that have seen years of foot traffic, rain, and sun. I’m sure they had once been lovely under all those layers of dirt,” I write. These curiosities color the descriptions in my short stories, fictional tales that complete the picture of recorded lists, places, recipes, and names.
Now, my manuscripts will be comprised of these vignettes, some shaped out of the gems bestowed to me orally, reinvented through memory. I continue to hold safe these stories that haven’t been imparted to the world yet, these fragments of perforated paper so delicate in their beauty, colorful tissues of paper that wrap like bunting to declare celebration.
Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Millions, Fathom Magazine, Image Journal, and elsewhere. She writes fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews. She is an alumna of the Mills College MFA program. She hosts the Afictionada podcast and is co-founder of Burning Bush Press. She is writing a novel. Find her here.
“Their words were prescribed to me like a medicine” strikes an answering note in me. Bitter, but ultimately healing. Thank you.
Thank you Jan, for stopping by to read. I appreciate your response!
I’ll be teaching this essay to writing students next week when we explore narrative voice. It’s a stunning model for that – and so much more. Thank you Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega and Brevity.
Wow, Iris, I am humbled. I appreciate that and am glad this essay will be helpful to your students!
This is gorgeous. I want to sit with you in your aunt’s cocina and listen to them as well. I look forward to reading these family stories. So important. I loved this article.
Thank you, Barbara! I am glad I was able to take every opportunity I could to sit with them and listen, really listen…
I’m so looking forward to reading more of you!
Thank you, Leslie. I appreciate that! I hope to unearth some more of these tales and publish a collection some day!
Safely holding and wisely sharing those stories is such honorable work. Thanks for sharing here and linking up at #PorchStories.
Thank you Kristin!
We are big story tellers at our house. You are sure to hear the same ones over and over, but I think that’s OK. It’s a way to cement those memories in kids, and create a sense of family bonding. thanks for sharing yours!
Thanks, Karen. Repetition truly does cement memories and isn’t it amazing how despite it, we may hear something different each time around?
[…] For more, visit the Brevity Blog to read another essay on the topic of family and storytelling. […]
Hearing this is incredibly comforting. So many stories that come from family stick with us and, as writers, take hold in our own minds and imaginations. I am trying to work through my own family stories, wondering what I should do to celebrate the connection and the past, and I am glad I could read your experiences. Thank you.
O, your words are so comforting. Thank you for stopping by to comment and read. I trust you will do something with those stories in your family and share them with the world!
A diamond I plucked from your beautiful essay, Erendira: “What good was it to be called to write and not write anything about the lives of those that impacted my soul the most?” Your lyrical writing does justice to your family’s stories. I’m sure they would be proud. I look forward to reading more from you.
Thank you so much! Your response is a great encouragement to me!
Hi! I am new in this community. Nice read.
[…] A version of this essay was previously published at Brevity. […]
[…] I visited Mexico decades ago while in college, I listened carefully to the stories of my […]