Family Storytellers and StoryCorps

Who’s the storyteller in your family?  I’ll bet your children know who it is. Here’s a chance to prompt them with questions and listen while recording them for posterity.StoryCorps

This Friday, November, 21, 2014, is the National Day of Listening sponsored by StoryCorps and is a perfect time to start. Continue it on Thanksgiving and you’ll gather an even bigger trove of treasure.

My grandmother’s stories were like a song catalogue.  And she took requests. Someone would ask, “Grammy, tell the one about…” She’d glance around, and smack her lips into a wide O-shaped smile.

Grammy used a firm “Well” in place of Once upon a time. Soon we’d hear the one about crawling on her hands and knees up the long hill to get home (at age seventy-five) after a hair appointment.  Grammy’s inimitable style was part of the storytelling and included succinct descriptions with perfect timing.

The only time anyone recorded her was the day she lay down on the floor at a big family party, a tour de force for someone in their eighties.  The word passed like wildfire: Clare’s on the floor! Guests produced video cameras to record the event. While it was hilarious to see, it was her voice and style that gave it unforgettable flavor.

StoryCorps reminds us that all families have storytellers like Grammy. You can choose your questions to suit your storyteller or the conversation.  It’s vital to record their stories—using audio or video–because nothing speaks across generations than hearing the stories we love told again and again.

Educating Silantoi

I face the sun, which we share. It warms the familiar brown envelope in my hands, which contains news of Silantoi, who lives half a world away.Silantoi and friend

A small photo shows her beautiful, round face beaming a huge smile. Not only is she taller, but her posture conveys confidence. A friend peeps over her shoulder and laughs as a photographer snaps the picture. Both girls stand in front of a rough wall at their Rombo boarding school in the wondrous Rift Valley in Kenya.

I read  Silantoi’s letter next. She likes science and wants to go to university to become a doctor. “I want to complete [high school] with good grades which will take me to a university around America…that is my dream.”

I’m astonished at Silantoi’s perseverance. Rote learning, no technology, a library consisting of old test booklets shoved on a shelf. I began sponsoring Silantoi’s education when I met the founder of BEADS for Education, Debby Rooney, in a  Newburyport, MA, bookstore. Now Debby has opened Tembea High School to give more girls a quality education.

Silantoi graduated 8th grade with high enough test scores to continue on to the Rombo high school, if she chose to—and she did! The significance of this is hard to overstate. Many girls in Kenya don’t go to school, severely limiting their options. When I sent Silantoi a modest watch for a graduation present, she replied, “I really treasure the watch and take care of it…it is really helping me to keep time while studying.”

Education for social justice often begins one child at a time. The gift for me is watching Silantoi grow and reveal her gifts and talents to the world.

A Letter, Victory, and Peace

Peg’s arm reached into the mailbox and pulled out this letter.


The return address reads:

Headquarters                                                                                                          Far East Air Forces                                                                                                  Office of the Commanding General

Her 21-year-old son Morgan was in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was not allowed to reveal his location. The letter could only mean that he had been killed. In the image above, you can see that Peg tore it open.

“November 20, 1945

“Dear Mrs. Molloy:

“Recently your son, Staff Sergeant Morgan P. Molloy, was decorated with the   Air Medal…[for] courageous service…meritorious achievement…hostile contact…combat operations…bombing missions.

“His has been a very real contribution to victory and peace.

“How proud I am to have your son in my command…young Americans of such courage and resourcefulness…the deciding factor in our country’s overwhelming victory…

“You, Mrs. Molloy, have every reason to share that pride and gratification.”

George C. Kenney                                                                                                                  General, United States Army                                                                                  Commanding

Fifty years later, my mother took it out of his drawer, framed it and hung it on the family room wall.  I asked my father, now 90, if he felt courageous as a B-25 tail gunner, especially during the ferocious Battle of Okinawa.

[Before every mission] I was scared. But you did what you were told, no matter what. Maybe you felt courage afterwards.

Courage and resourcefulness in the face of danger or death.  In this way, my father and other  war veterans have made “a very real contribution to victory and peace.”  That’s why we  celebrate Veteran’s Day–for the gifts of victory and peace.

Talk with your children about how to honor our veterans in 2014.

Why We Can Vote

It was parade of about eight thousand marchers. Onlookers, several hundred thousand of them, jammed the sidewalks.

Soon the marchers were mobbed, shoved, tripped, beaten, even burned by cigars by some onlookers. Police refused to interfere. Army troops were summoned to help. Hundreds of marchers were injured. One hundred of them ended up in the hospital.

Could you tolerate this treatment in order to vote?

The marchers, who were suffragettes, did. This 1913 parade in Washington, D.C. was another event in the fight for women’s right to vote. They won the fight in 1920, after over sixty years of struggle.

On Election Day this year, please exercise your right to vote. Teachers, parents, and grandparents, tell your children why you vote and why voting is important.

Our foremothers and forefathers fought long and hard so we could do so.

Art and Empathy

Look at this fantastic work, The Sower, by Van Gogh, painted in 1888. Give your eyes time to move and rest on details. As you do this, pay attention to your reactions to what you see. Note the thoughts, emotions and feelings that arise inside you.

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Are you startled by the richness of the sun or do your fingers itch to trace its grooves? Does your mind imagine hearing the sower’s feet pressing into the earth? Who is the sower and what is his story?

When we tune in to an experience with art like this one, we learn a new way to talk with children about empathy. I think that one of the best reasons to use art is to build understanding and strong connections to humankind.  Learning to see and experience through new eyes—or the eyes of another—challenges our minds to grow.

Education philosopher Maxine Greene urges us to realize that understanding  art through experience is an essential part of every child’s education.  I agree.  Whenever I think about the history of human civilization, art and empathy appear together as the deepest elements of our story, as deep as the grooves on Van Gogh’s radiant sun.



Family Rituals and Bobby Shafto

Does your family love to dance?  Play soccer together?  Deep-fry turkeys on special occasions?  All are rituals that enrich family lives.

Mine was a family that loved to sing. When we were children, my grandmother accompanied us on the piano as she taught us folk songs and nursery rhymes.

My sisters and I sang Bobby Shafto in harmony while washing dishes. In the car, our mother taught us to sing the round White Coral Bells. When I learned to play the piano, my father appeared whenever he heard me play the introduction to The Bowery and he sang next to me.

Later, when our aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered for Christmas, we sang through Handel’s Messiah in four-part harmony. We weren’t professionals. Not everyone sang in tune. It was a family ritual and something we enjoyed.

Looking back, what do I think we children learned from all of the singing?

Certainly social and emotional skills—everyone participated and no one dared grouch along. Our ears learned to distinguish sounds (a reading skill) and rhythmic patterns (art, music and math skills). We learned to read lyrics that used words from different countries and eras (more reading). Our vocabularies grew with words like andante and diminuendo.

With rituals like this reinforced from all sides in a family, learning occurs and memories are made.

It doesn’t matter what your family sings—oldies, show tunes, or hymns—it’s the doing it together that helps children grow.


Shown:  The Daughters of Catulle-Mendès at the Piano

Pierre August Renoir, 1888

HONK! It to The World

IMG_3162What issues in our world fill you with passion?

Perhaps you’re working to gain freedom for the children in Tibet. Maybe fracking issues make you crazy or you are a member of Veterans for Peace. Or your focus might be more local, like saving a silver maple forest in a cherished reservation.

IMG_3146Do you care enough to grab your tuba or push yourself down the street with a couple of plungers?
Because that’s what people did at the 2014 HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands in Somerville and Cambridge, MA. The parade mixed zeal with fun and educated the spectators, providing welcome relief from the litany of terrible world problems in the news. Not that the HONK! groups didn’t make their points. They did. And they used larger-than-life sized puppets and funky costumes to do it.

Making the usual, unusual gives messages a fresh emphasis.  Everyone in this parade found a personal and artistic perspective in community with others.  That’s a valuable set of life lessons  for all of us, accompanied by a dash of AfroBrazilian percussion.IMG_3176

I love to see parents and grandparents teaching children how to help change a larger world than their own. When learning starts in the family, it settles into childrens’ souls. And when it’s lodged there, you’ve given children tools that no one else but you can give. Add in some glitter and an orange feather boa–who knew that changing the world could be so much fun?IMG_3109