Holly Richardson: The Macaroni and Cheese Sandwich and Other Tales

Holly Richardson

When my husband was in his early 20’s, he was at his parents home with his brother who was in his late teens. The two of them were hungry and made a deal to share lunch preparation duties. My brother-in-law agreed to make macaroni and cheese and my husband agreed to make sandwiches.

When the mac and cheese was done, my husband slapped a spoonful between two pieces of bread and said “Ta da! Sandwiches!”

His brother was not amused. In fact, it was a good twenty years before he could even smile at that story. Meanwhile, our family thinks it’s hilarious.

All families have stories — sometimes embellished, sometimes stripped down, sometimes funny, sometimes anything but funny — that are passed from generation to generation. Oral storytelling has been part of human existence since the dawn of time. They are the ties that bind us to each other.

Families in Texas, specifically Houston, are living through some pretty intense times right now. The clean-up will be long and costly. The emotional trauma of losing a home and all of your belongings (or even some of your belongings) can be significant. Surely Hurricane Harvey will become part of family lore for tens of thousands of families.

Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More,” wrote about family stories in The New York Times. “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all,” he said. “Develop a strong family narrative.” 

Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush started studying this in the summer of 2001. They created a series of 20 questions designed to tease out what family stories the children knew. They included questions like: Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger? Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences? Do you know how your parents met? Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?

The results were overwhelming. According to Feiler, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

Duke and Fivush had an opportunity just a couple of months later to re-interview those same children after the attacks of 9/11 and found once again that, “The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Feeling a part of something bigger than themselves, having a sense of belonging and a connection with a larger whole resulted in higher self confidence and more resilience. Knowing that Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa had good times and hard times and got through both helps children (and adults) get through the next hard thing.

It’s important to capture and preserve those stories. An old African proverb says “when an old person dies, a library burns.” I found out last week that my 95 year old grandmother has never written or recorded her life story. I was shocked! You see, I had just assumed someone else had done it - and you know what that makes me. I will be driving to her home in Missouri next week to capture those stories while I still can.

I haven’t been very good at capturing my own family stories. I haven’t scrapbooked since 2000 and, even though I’ve been a writer for some time, I haven’t written down our stories. I’ve taken gobs of digital pictures, but I don’t have them sorted or saved anywhere besides my phone and my desktop. If this computer crashed, I’d be in a world of hurt. I’ve been busy making memories but “too busy” to preserve them. I’m determined to change that, one story at a time.

Holly Richardson has a goal to write down one story a week. She would also love to know — what are some of your favorite family stories?