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Beyond the organ recital

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Esther Bergdahl photo 

Listening to stories about my family is a surefire way to keep me enthralled. It has been since I was little. My parents had me quite late, and I missed out on knowing a huge segment of my relatives, including both my maternal grandparents. Stories are how I connect with that part of myself.

My parents like to say that our family business is storytelling. We all rely on it to some degree professionally, but we do it for fun at the drop of a hat. I had great uncles, the sons of immigrants, who used to jump off bridges into the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, long before it was the most livable city in America. My grandfather, who was 6’4”, was hired to be a school principal on Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie because the previous principal had been tossed out a second-floor window. One that always blows me away is my father’s story of his great aunt, who, when he visited as a small boy, told him that she’d been sitting in that very chair when her father walked in, hung up his coat and hat and said, “They’ve done it, they’ve shot the president, Mr. Lincoln is dead.”

I have an insatiable appetite for these stories, as I suspect many of us do. I remember once asking my mother how far back our family remembers go. She said there used to be a saying, “cold as a Frenchman,” which we got because come spring, when my predecessors in Lithuania did the plowing, every year they turned up bones of Napoleonic soldiers who’d died marching against Russia.

Thanksgiving is prime storytelling time. Not only do you have all those hours waiting for the turkey to roast, you have those glorious, tryptophan-hazy post-meal evenings to sit around and let the conversation wander. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing my two young nieces who live in Seattle, who are at a wonderful age for asking questions about our family. We’re a far-flung bunch – I like to tell people that I’ve got one sibling in every time zone – but Thanksgiving has always been a great time to catch up.

There are other benefits to swapping stories over the holiday. Aside from Turkey Day and the inevitable crush of pre-Christmas mania, November is also National Family Health History Month. Family health history is one of those “secret weapons” in health care that, when used properly, can open up a whole field of potentially life-improving options. Preventive medicine loves family health histories. For instance, if you start talking about particular health issues that have appeared in multiple members of your family, you may wonder if you’re at risk for these issues yourself. They can range from diabetes and high blood pressure to an increased risk of developing cancer. Ashkenazi Jews are often particularly attentive to patterns of cancer in their families, because of increased incidence of cancer predisposition mutations in their BRCA genes. If you’ve learned that you’re a carrier for one of the “Jewish” genetic disorders, other family members may want to investigate testing too. This information is useful: your health care provider will always want to know if you’ve made some connections or discovered something new in your background.

I get it if the thought of talking about health issues, particularly scary ones, is kind of a downer for Thanksgiving. (My grandfather, who was a doctor, used to say that when he got together with older friends or relatives, it always became “the organ recital” – an exhaustive catalog of all their latest aches, pains, operations and embarrassing prescriptions.) But it doesn’t have to be excruciating. There are a number of free resources online to help get the conversation started. Even the act of putting together a family tree – a pedigree, in a medical context – is a great start and can be a fun activity, especially with a healthy dash of anecdotes. (And goodness knows I have a hard time keeping my gigantic, sprawling list of relatives straight in my head.)

This year is going to be nuts at the old homestead. My sister and her family are coming, and all five of us will be staying at our parents’ house, along with Gus, the 80-pound basset hound. In addition, I also have a serialized novel to keep writing, the GRE to study for and graduate school applications to map out. There are only so many hours in the day. But I am looking forward to the moment when I can sit down, look around at my family and pose my favorite question: “Hey, remember that time when…?”

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