The Storytellers

Documentation regarding the Hungarian heritage of my grandfather, Julius Papp.

The Story:

The Other (the Original?) Perspective

by Norbert Blei

For the writer it all goes back to the subject of the poem and note below which I recently discovered and saved in one of my files for a time to tell a little more about ‘story’—as I see it, since the subject and process have occupied me for more than fifty years, when I put my first story down on paper. A story that had something to do about my father and neckties.

I was aware at family gatherings (through birthright or acquired knowledge), that someone in every family was the recorder, the historian, the memory bank, the keeper of the tale, oral or written. Though many of these stories were told and retold, passed down by cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents, there was only one aunt in our family who had all the particulars, all the facts, names, dates, documents, circumstances and imagination to reveal over phone, in conversation, in a letter precisely what happened to whom, when and where.

Do you remember? Now you know. Believe you me, I’ll never forget that story about Uncle Charlie chasing the pig on Grandma’s farm… And the telling would be told traditionally with humor or sadness or mystery or anger or love or regret.

In the short story, “Skarda,” which appears in THE GHOST OF SANDBURG’S PHIZZOG, written well after I had established myself as a published writer of short stories, I recall the main character, a young boy growing up in an ethnic American neighborhood, making reference to the idea that someone in every family would pass the stories on. And that, Skarda, the old lady who read cards predicted, would one day be the young boy.

Genealogy is a popular pastime for many these days. Who and where we came from…The beginning of our story.

The writer, however, knows instinctively that great stories live in our past, waiting to be remembered, retold, refashioned, honed by hand, heart, and mind to unforgettable perfection. Begin here. —Norbert Blei

The Story Tellers

We are the chosen.

My feelings are in each family there is one who
seems called to find the
ancestors. To put flesh on their bones and make
them live again, to tell
the family story and to feel that somehow they
know and approve.

To me, doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of
acts but, instead,
breathing life into all who have gone before.
We are the story tellers of
the tribe. All tribes have one. We have been
called as it were by our genes.

Those who have gone before cry out to us: Tell
Our story. So, we do.
In finding them, we somehow find ourselves. How
many graves have I stood
before now and cried? I have lost count. How many
times have I told the
ancestors you have a wonderful family you would
be proud of us? How many
times have I walked up to a grave and felt
somehow there was love there
for me?
I cannot say.

It goes beyond just documenting facts. It goes to
who am I and why do I
do the things I do. It goes to seeing a cemetery
about to be lost
forever to weeds and indifference and saying I
can’t let this happen. The
bones here are bones of my bones and flesh of my
flesh. It goes to doing
something about it.
It goes to pride in what our ancestors were able
to accomplish. How they
contributed to what we are today. It goes to
respecting their hardships
and losses, their never giving in or giving up,
their resoluteness to go
on and build a life for their family.

It goes to deep pride that they fought to make
And keep us a Nation. It
goes to a deep and immense understanding that
they were doing it for us.
That we might be born who we are. That we might
remember them. So we do.
With love and caring and scribing each fact of
their existence, because
we are them and they are us.

So, as a scribe called, I tell the story of my
family. It is up to that
one called in the next generation to answer the
call and take their place
in the long line of family storytellers.

That, is why I do my family genealogy, and that
Is what calls those
young and old to step up and put flesh on the

Tom Dunn

Family history – Is It Genealogy ?

I’m interested in knowing how many people on our mailing list are developing a family HISTORY. To me, genealogy is much more than just names, dates & places. Social history plays a very big part in a family’s story. And it is a STORY.

I, for one, incorporate history, personal characteristics, and yes, the foods my ancestors cooked and how they celebrated their holidays. I sometimes attend national genealogy conferences, where some of the top genealogists in the country make presentations. Without exception, they all have this broader definition of the term “genealogy.” They feel that without family stories, the family history is dry.
I agree.

I believe our legacy is to tell our descendants what our ancestors were like, not just to present facts and figures. It’s not my intention here to debate the appropriateness of the recent messages to this list, only some people’s apparent definition of “genealogy.” Thanks for your attention.— Pat D.


  1. Jean Casey

    I think, Pat D., you will find lots of us within the sound of Norb’s “voice” writing our stories, trying to flesh out the people in our lives, and describing events as only we can see them. My younger brother seated at the same dinner table undoubtedly saw them differently, and as my grandfather probably said, “that’s what makes horse racing!” This fall I found my sister-in-law tucked up with the sprawling, unedited ring binder of my life writing, and she would not be dissuaded from reading it ALL. I beg forgiveness for my inaccuracies, but I’ll not take back a word of it. Besides the assorted passed-down tea cups and sterling silver, it is probably the best thing I will leave, since no one else took the time.

  2. Elizabeth Pochron

    great piece, read it years ago and in part impelled me to visit Sicily just to see where the ancestors lived, loved, walked, shopped, etc. its all still there in that small town of Sortino……preserved in time, a small town within a new larger town and yes it put flesh on the bones of my long gone grandfather and his grandfather.

  3. Mary Bosman

    I am writing a fictional account of my Irish great-great grandmother- it is also a humor book. I loved searching out how the Irish lived in the 1800s after the Famine and also loved it when she came to help me in my life here in Wisconsin – in the book, of course! It is a very rich and rewarding thing to do- besides making me laugh myself silly sometimes. How’d you like to know if “You can’t make a piano out of a bacon box” was a proverb your ancestor said??

  4. Robert M. Zoschke

    Beautiful piece St. Norb…but here’s the kicker…does every family have someone who can do The Chair Trick? (For The New Yorker to have taken that story about Chicago, hell, that Chair Trick had to be something uniquely special…).

  5. Mary Ann

    I have been collecting the ‘papers’ of my family for 40 years. Learning about the great great grandfather who was illegitimate which would have changed our name. It had been a family secret all those years. Following the Scottish great grandfather back home to Scotland to the street where he lived. Still searching for another great great grandfather in an Illinois farming community where they all came from the same area in England. Taping oral history accounts has been wonderful. My great grandchildren will be amazed, in my lifetime I have gone from the outhouse with the Sears catalog and water from the spring on the hill to being told what is happening around the world daily and talking on facebook instead of on the party line. Thank you Norb.

  6. Jan

    I agree. Our ancestors deserve genealogies that give meaningful substance to their lives and times.After more then twenty years of research, I finally published my family’s history. Nearly 2000 of my direct ancestors, the earliest of whom emigrated from France to the French Colony in North America, are listed in appendices at the back of my book. But I enlisted about 200 of them for the most important part of my book, where I describes their lives and living conditions from the times of early settlement to when my four grandparents emigrated from Canada to New England at the turn of the 20th century. Take a look on Google Books at “Our Tangled French Canadian Roots.”

  7. Barbara Larsen

    So true! The lives of so many people are impoverished by not having been blessed with family stories told around tables and on porches in the evening. If I accomplished anything important in my life, it was persuading my grandmother, and in time, my mother to write their family histories. I read them over and over. And, Mary Bosman: our saying was: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

  8. Barbara Vroman

    When I was a young reporter it amazed me that every little town had at least one person who had felt compelled to record the town’s history, hang on to all the old postcards,newsclippings and major tragedies and triumph s of it’s past citizens. I have written my own memoir now, inspired by Norbert, although it turned out that was not what he had in mind. My brother says I made the whole thing up.Ha! (well not everything, he has to admit we did live together.)

    • Donald Beattie


  9. Donald Beattie

    Oh yes, I have done oodles of genealogies and written about my family in at least six major works. D. Beattie

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