03 May 2017

The Story Gene

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

 by Robert Lopresti

This appeared on Criminal Brief in 2009.  Seemed appropriate for our family celebration.

I just got back from a week of visiting family on the east coast. I spent a few days with all three of my siblings for the first time in a decade – although we’ve all seen each other more often than that.

There were nine family members, plus a couple of other special guests who were there part of the time. Almost sixty years of age separated the oldest from the youngest. So, what did we do when we got together?

Well, we ate. Mmm, lasagna! But mostly we told stories.

First we talked about travel. Miserable plane trips. Who we saw before arriving. Where we toured the day before.

Next came news briefs: job changes, school stuff, future plans.

Then came health issues. Plenty there to discuss as most of us travel through (or past) middle age.
But finally we got to what you might call Deep Story: family memories, some of them dating back before my birth. Do you remember the time the tree fell on the house? When did we sell the bungalow down the shore? Did you hear that Grandma worked for Thomas Edison?

Sometimes it turns out we heard the stories differently, or even remember the same events differently. But that just made the discussion more interesting. (The youngest of the clan politely ignored the chatter of her elders, while offering her own salute to story-telling: she was rereading Harry Potter.)

At one point I held the floor for several minutes (probably too long), telling everyone about one of my adventures. And as all eyes were turned in my direction I starting thinking about the narrative urge. The desire to tell and listen to stories, which keeps us writers of fiction in business, seems to be built into the family heritage. And I don’t mean just the Lopresti family.

A very old story

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, two sisters were born. Since language had recently been invented, the proud parents were able to name their children, and they called them Og and Zog. The girls resembled each other in looks and personalities, but there was one tiny difference between them.
Og was fascinated with stories. She liked to hear them and to tell them. Zog, on the other hand, didn’t care for them.

It turned out that Og’s children inherited her fondness for stories. And that’s where things get interesting.

When gatherers came back and reported where they had found the most honey, Og’s children paid close attention. When a hunter came back, frightened and bleeding, and explained why you should never, ever cross a meadow if animals are behaving in a certain way, the sons and daughters of Og took in every word. And when the wild-thinker in the tribe explained that these berries were sacred to the gods and must never be eaten, guess who took this rule to heart.

Which meant Og’s children were slightly more likely than Zog’s to find the honey, avoid the lion, and ignore the poisonous berries. Which gave them a tiny advantage in survival.

And so, while Og and Zog had the same number of children, Og had more grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. Give or take a few thousand generations and most of us have some of Og’s blood in our veins. That’s evolution, baby.

A love story

I feel like I need to pay this off with a family story, so here’s one I heard the last time I visited my father, a few months before he passed.

Dad told me that his father came to the United States from Sicily early in the twentieth century. John remembered a family from his village who had come to New Jersey earlier. Mostly he remembered a girl named Mamie.

He went to the Garden State and found the family, but alas, Mamie had made up her mind to become a nun. This, of course, was not what John had in mind.

Now it happened that Mamie’s father ran an ice cream parlor in Plainfield, New Jersey. He wasn’t very good at it. The ice cream was fine. The problem was when customers came in he had a habit of telling them “I’m busy. Go away.” Experts in retail tend to frown on this as a sales technique.

It occurred to him that if John married his daughter they could take the shop off his hands. So, with a little paternal persuasion, Mamie agreed to give up her hopes for the nunnery and instead become a wife and eventually the mother of four children.

Her husband John turned the ice cream parlor into a grocery store, which is what you see in the picture above. (Alas, the people in sight are not my relatives.)

“So what happened to Great-grampa?” I asked my father. “Did he find a business where he didn’t have to deal with the public?”

“Not exactly,” said Dad. “He became a bootlegger.”

Final thought

Do you have relatives your own age or older? Have you asked what they remember about your family’s history? Is anyone writing these stories down?

Because if not, they will soon be as lost as the stories Og told her children.


  1. Great photo, Rob.

    And I tried to get my parents to go on video and talk about family. It was like pulling teeth. I got one tape I think with my mom and dad. And now she's gone. Maybe I should try again with my dad. Because, as you say, once they're gone so much goes with them.

  2. How fortunate you are to have such great family stories- plus photos!

  3. Great stories and pictures, Rob. This is truly the kind of stuff that built our country, so the current immigration debate is both disheartening and infuriating.

    My parents were reluctant to talk about family history except for a few rare anecdotes, so I'm really jealous of your knowledge. It's priceless.

    A couple of the things I DO know may explain why they were willing to share so little. Like the photograph of both of my grandmothers, who were sisters.

    We have (actually, my daughter, who spends a lot of time on Ancestry.com) scads of old photographs, mostly unlabeled, going back well over a century. One, taken around 1920, shows my father and his three older siblings, a sister and two brothers. His sister looks so much like my daughter did at the same age that my wife and I both stared at it with open mouths the first time we saw it.

    My grandmother and several first cousins became teachers, so maybe that's how I fell into this writing stuff.

  4. Steve, when my daughter was born people said she looked just like my wife. I shrugged that off; she looked like a baby! Then I saw a picture of Terri at the same age. Holy heck, they were right. My daughter moved away ten years ago and people still look at my wife and say "Hi, Susie's mom!"

    You also reminded me of Mark Twain's comment that some people said the Twain family tree had only one branch and it bore fruit in all seasons. (i.e. a gallows.)

  5. Marvelous, Rob! And so timely. As I care for my Mom, I keep trying to pry loose time to gather stories. She is the one in our family who knows and remembers them all. But so much time goes into balancing the house of cards that is her health these days! When the cards collapse, I most want to have rescued the stories.

  6. My grandmother, who died in 1993, her best friend, & my mother kept up a correspondence for many years & my mother has copies of everything. They typed on typewriters & made carbon copies.

    About two years ago, my second cousin wrote & published a book of her family's history. My mother bought a copy for me ... although it has an ISBN number, it is not available through Amazon etc. & it seems the only way to get a copy is to send a check to the author. I think she basically wrote the book to explain her family story to herself. She writes well enough, although she isn't exactly Shakespeare, & I was delighted to have the family photos she included.

    Problem? She included lyrics to over 100 songs. And lifted whole sections from Wikipedia. I'm not a copyright cop so I'm not going to be any more specific than that!

  7. Pat Marinelli03 May, 2017 13:44

    Great post. I've been writing down the stories I heard from my grandparents and parents for my adult kids. What I need to get the kids to do it write some of their stories down for my grandson. I do this because I don't want them lost.

    My sister lives in North Plainfield and I ride through Plainfield to get there so it was great to see a picture your family's grocery store.

  8. Wonderful post, Rob. In recent years, I've felt a stronger interest in knowing more about my family's history, and I've regretted that I didn't ask my parents and grandparents more questions when I had the chance. Earlier this year, I took out a three-month membership in Ancestry.com and came across some surprises. For example, my father had three half-siblings he never mentioned to us. (They were the children of my paternal grandfather and his first wife--I never knew he had a first wife.)I can't remember my father or his three full sisters ever saying anything about any of this. There's got to be a story there, but now I'll probably never know it.


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