Family Folklore: How Stories Make Us Who We Are

Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. By Mariano - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

So there we sat, around the fire, tiny faces open-mouthed, eyes wrinkling in amazement and horror. That’s how I remember the nights my brother and I sat listening to my grandmother tell us her stories of when she was young, the aim of the evening to pull out all of those little details of how life was different back then. The things we’d find shocking: soot from the fireplace to draw a line up the back of your leg because you couldn’t afford tights. The things our small six-year-old selves would find hilarious: how our great-grandmother trained the dog to run to the local shop, take a carrot in his mouth and run away, so that there was veg to go in the stew that day — the same dog that jumped out of the window one day during an air raid, and was never seen again. Then there were the stories that would make us cry and feel the gritty reality of how hard life could be: Of step-scrubbing, dripping on toast, and how my great-grandfather was a strict, military man that once beat the living daylights out of his son with a belt for finding a shilling and not owning up. They were strange tales, of a dark and fabled past, of times that still echo with the laughter — and the tears — of the family members we never knew, but think of as if we did, brought alive by these stories of the children and siblings they left behind. Now traced out only in a soft grey pencil as a tree, with only small dashes left to show the love bonds between them; lists of dates all that’s left of the wrenching births, laughter-filled weddings, and lingering deaths, that bound them together in life.

It’s strange to think that in the telling of these stories, and the eager recording of them with small fingers and felt-tipped pens, lies a time-old process of a child finding itself, and its own place in the world, by the discovery of what, and who, came before it; as if with the writing of this tree, and the glueing of pictures in a scrapbook, will make the child more itself — and ground it in a sense of time, tie it to a place to call home where the ghosts of the family still walk in our memories and create a sense of belonging to a vast network of stories that teach us who we are.

Along with these tales of the past came family photographs, produced as proof. That’s Old Jip, the dog that ran away. Here’s the budgie that used to sit on Uncle Alf’s plate, as he’d feed it his own dinner, your grandmother used to be terrified of it… Each time we did this, there would be a box—a drawer, to be more precise—that would be brought out. The family heirlooms would be passed around for each child to hold; like we might imagine the bones of the ancestors might be passed around in the Neolithic. Each came a story. There’s a boy in uniform. That’s your great-great-grandfather, a military man they say — see how young he looks. Here’s his flute, from when he used to play in the Lodge as a boy; you can see his sash in the photo. A stern Orange man, they say. Here’s your great-grandfather’s pipe; he’d sit and look out of the window with this once your great-grandmother died, brave he was—the first person to have his picture put in a medical journal for having a lung removed. Someone would drop the pipe in horror. Careful now, don’t break it. Here’s the last shopping list your great-grandmother had in her purse when she died: look, she was buying vests for you, back before you were born. Never got to see you, she didn’t. Shame that. There’s a family Bible too, you know, goes right back to 1600 and has all the names of the people who owned it written in the front. Came all the way from Scotland. It has the name of your great ancestor, a doctor he was — saved the town from cholera; they built a statue to him, but the Americans came and bought it and took it back with them. I don’t know where it is, but my grandmother told me about it — she saw it before they left Scotland. Has anyone seen the Bible? Well, yes — I saw it once. Way back when. Not for years, though. Your mother said it’s still in my sister’s attic. We’ll ask them for it one day.

Black and white photo of a boy with an orange sash
My great-grandfather wearing his Orange Lodge sash — from the turn of the century

Yet the Bible never appeared, and I’ve certainly never seen it. Yet, if I have nephews or nieces one day, I’ll be sure to tell them about it: Do you know, there’s a family Bible somewhere? Goes right back to 1600, they say, with all the family members’ names in the front. No, I’ve never seen it—but my grandmother had, she told me so. And over time, these memories become folklore. No one quite knows if the story is true, and they’re pretty sure the details have been misremembered, at least a little. But they’re our stories, and we’ll keep telling them—as long as we remember how, because they somehow make us a little more ourselves. We carry that pride with us; that knowledge our ‘ancient’ ancestor saved a town: We’re good, brave people, in our family. We’re Scottish, you know—we came from a cottage on the edge of a cliff that looked out to the ocean — not just that dingy, terraced street I grew up in. It wasn’t always hard, we just lost our way a little, and that’s why we struggle now. And that somehow seems to make my own mistakes seem okay because, back in the 17th or 18th century, a man in a village in Scotland was a doctor. And that seems to be how we make sense of the world: by constructing our identities about what we choose to remember. I certainly never think of the man who took his sons to the coal cellar and beat them with a belt as part of me; rather, I think of the resilience of his sons in the face of that: I’m from that brave family. As if that father belongs only to someone else’s story.

So, there’s my story: A story of a family of great doctors from the green hills of Scotland who fell on hard times but battled through it. That’s my identity, my claim to this country, my claim to pride in myself and what came before me.

Except it isn’t.

What of the other side of my family? We didn’t see my other grandparents too often, so we didn’t hear many of their stories. But I wonder now who I might be if I’d never got to hear any of them: Would I be a proud Brit with good Scottish roots? Would I be salt-of-the-earth and proud of it? I’ll never know. Because after hearing these stories of war, and Scotland, and carrots, I asked the question: What other stories can I find? Who were my father’s family before I knew them?

And there, the tale diverges.

With my pale, freckled skin, and my strong, Scottish red hair, I sat in the crumbling old dining room with my grandfather. I looked around at the old, dusty antiques, wanting to reach out and pat one of the strange cats that peered and purred from the dark corners of the grand old room. And there, once more, I sat with my stubby pencil, sharpened by my other grandfather’s penknife, in true salt-of-the-earth style, as he’d learned to do as part of his builder’s apprenticeship, many years before. And there I scribbled down the tiny dashes between names—of births, and loves, and deaths—and I traced out a new story that was also part of me and also made me who I am. This was a tale of desperation, of pain, of love that seemed to conquer all in the face of desolation. It too began with a war, and the words looped around it — arcing back to what came before, linking the past with the now, telling how it came to be. There, in his lilting, drawling tones, with his tanned skin and his fierce blue eyes, my Eastern-European grandfather told me his story, adding to my own, and drawing a line from where I sat, across the map, to a far off land — with far off stories — that now became my own.

It was a tale made fitting for a seven-year-old mind and eager face waiting for stories of tragedy and endless love. It began in Hungary, when he had left his home and the family farm behind, walking over the mountains in the snow to reach England and safety, in the hope that he be allowed to settle here as an asylum seeker. Here, he met my grandmother, a Latin teacher and daughter of a grand family who could trace their roots back to the French nobles who came with William the Conqueror. She should have been queen, your grandmother. I looked at the cats clawing at the scratched bureaus, knocking over the port-filled crystal decanters now covered in cobwebs, and wasn’t sure I believed that at all. I wrote it down anyway. They had a grand house, her family: the Norrises they were called, and their home had been Speke Hall, not too far away in Liverpool. They’d lost it, he’d been told, but it didn’t matter; it was still part of them. Her own mother was French anyway, so she still had that refinement in her. And, do you know, her brother was a priest who once had lunch with the Pope… And so the story trailed off, with the annual family gathering that came with the familiar smell of my grandfather’s speciality dish: stuffed cabbage, marinated and prepared for the huge gathering over two whole days, and served in small bowls with the sweet, tangy tomato sauce, and pungent meat and rice inside. I never did find out the family recipe, though not through want of asking.

Yet, later, I wanted to know the truth to this story, so I asked my own father about the reality of it. It seems that my grandfather’s tale was one of survival. This regaled adventure of walking across mountains and falling in love had bitterness at its core. It began in the Hungarian revolution—a time of war and death when Hungary was under the rule of a totalitarian terrorist dictatorship—in a sea of communism and oppression. My grandfather, it’s said, was a friend to the leader of the dissidents. He had to flee when his life was threatened for speaking out for the people and standing up to defend his country and their rights against the government that was oppressing them. People were being taken from their homes by the government and just disappearing. For him, as someone brave enough to speak out about what was happening, the danger of death was imminent, and he had to flee with his brother, leaving family and friends behind him. He travelled on foot, I’m told, across the mountains in freezing temperatures. It’s said he only survived the relentless frost one day by coming across a man lying dead in the snow—a soldier in a heavy military coat. He took this coat, and this is why he lived: lumbering away from danger, with only a dead man’s coat to shield him from his own death.

And what of his family, I asked? His brother Tibor, they say, was as tall as a giant. He used to bounce me on his knee in the living room at the annual family gathering—back before I remember, so the memories are made for me. I’m told that my great-grandmother came after them, years later, a small, shrivelled woman of an age no one knew, draped in black, head covered, without a word of English. I would call her ‘noyd-mama’, I’m told (the Hungarian for grandmother is nagymama, I’ve since learned). I remember none of this, but that’s okay—the stories remember for me. So what of the giant, Uncle Tibor, I ask? Ah, well that’s a terrible tale, they say. He wanted to return to Hungary, and go home. And so he did, when the danger was over.

Except it wasn’t.

The tale from across the ocean tells that when a younger member of the family left Hungary without permission, Uncle Tibor was taken by the police, and held for questioning. It’s said that the last thing the family heard was that he had a heart attack while in custody. Unfortunately, these things happen, of course—no one’s fault.

Now, I’m not entirely sure of the extent of torture that still existed at this time, or if this was supposed to have happened too long after the times of danger had passed—I would certainly like to think so. Nevertheless, it’s strange—and horrifying—to consider that communist rule did not end in Hungary until 1989. Yet the possible reality of this ending only really hit when my brother moved to Hungary recently and made a tourist stop to the secret prison that is now preserved to show the horrors that were faced during this time, and really brings home why people fled in fear of their lives. In Budapest, The House of Terror Museum shows dirty rooms, in basements, with blood stains and excrement still marking the walls as a permanent reminder of the horrors faced. The building has a dark history: torture implements are on show, and an account of what was faced can be read here, but be warned: it’s harrowing. Thousands of Hungarians were imprisoned or killed during the Russian occupation in the 1950s after fighting against the secret police (AVH) and winning back their freedom for just five days during the Hungarian revolution. It’s terrible to think that my own grandfather could have been one of the dead had he not escaped. Yet, none of the suffering that the people held here at the House of Terror feels real until I think of giant Uncle Tibor, who only wanted to go home to his country, possibly cowering in a room just like this, with his own blood soaking into the cold cement floor. And I can’t help but wonder—if time had played out differently, and Communism in Hungary had not ended with the help of people standing up to the oppressors — could I too have been born into a world where my own life would end in blood and torture, in a room just like this one?

See some photos of the torture rooms: here and on Flickr, as well as here and on Trip Advisor.

So, over the years, I’ve picked at the truth of these stories, this folklore, for what else can it be called? Story on story, passed from one family member to another, with objects kept as proof that the tales were real and that these people existed. I’m sure much of these tales are pure fabrication, while much has probably meandered from the truth with the tale being told and retold, details changing over the years. My knowledge of modern European history is limited, and while the option to dig into the reality of the Hungarian uprising is there, part of me feels like I don’t want to dig deeper. I’d prefer to remember the love stories, the laugher, and the budgies that eat from dinner plates. But, maybe if I do dig deeper, I might find that this tale of blood and death was also true for my family, as well as many others.

And now, today, when I sit with my father-in-law, chewing on tamarind, notebook on my lap, I see more tales added to this pencilled-in tree. He tells of his favourite mango tree that stood tall in the garden of his grand house as a boy, so far away, in Karnataka, India. Face beaming with pride, he tells of how he managed to visit his childhood school—70 years later—an old man from England, telling the schoolboys his own tales as they bustled around him to hear and pay their respects to Uncle. He tells me of how he met his wife, the daughter of a staunch Italian man and an elegant French woman. He tells how her father was made a Papal Knight by the Pope and then travelled to London to settle. He boasts how her mother served in the war and lost an arm, only to have it sewn back on. They were so in love, he tells me, that her father once commissioned a complete tea set for his wife from France; to be made by hand and finished with gold. I listen as he regales his adventures of sailing all the seas of the world, in tall-tales that does make me think a little too much of the film Big Fish. I wonder if it’s even possible to sew an arm back on, for starters, as I sip at my tea in the bright London flat.

Back at home, my partner and I sit with his own bag of family heirlooms, and we slowly start to unwrap the items inside. Piece by piece, these stories — these lives — take shape before us. There, in an array of faded greys, is a debonair man in an old fashioned hat and overcoat, with a small girl playing in a square. It’s his grandfather. Next, a portrait of a beautiful woman with a firm jawline falls from the folds of an old handkerchief, and we shake loose a box after it: a medal, given in the war for bravery, it states. Then, piece by piece, we begin to unwrap the next objects, and gold glitters as the paper comes off. A tea set emerges, hand painted in Limoges — there’s a card that comes with it as proof. I take the medal, and I put it in my own keepsake box on the mantelpiece. I look at the delicately shaped copper of the lid as I lift it — depicting Hungarian shepherds smoking their traditional long pipes as they tend their sheep — the cigar box brought by my grandfather from Hungary many years before. I nestle the medal in next to my English grandfather’s penknife, and I think about all of the sticks we whittled together as he told me tales of our old, gnarled woodlands of the North and the legends that go with them.

Limoges tea set © Dee Dee Chainey
Limoges tea set © Dee Dee Chainey

Not all of the family stories are true. Still, maybe—as they are told, and told again—they become true, and gain a life in their own right, as tangible things that ribbon through the lives of the members of our family as it goes on, generation to generation, joining, splitting, and flowing out across the globe. Yet, on dark nights, and in hard times, these stories help to bind us with comfort and support us as they tie us into a time, into a place, into a network of people that have come before us and lived their lives bravely. And by holding these stories with us, they teach us that people survive. While we may no longer need the family stories of our ancestors to teach us how to follow the herds, and we no longer trace paths through the landscape following their paintings in caves and on rocks that probably held their own stories, we do still need our own stories of place, of grounding, of resistance. They are also stories of connection. If we trace these tales back far enough, if we could hold all of the objects in our hands—these keepers of tales that act as memory aids for the family folklore that goes with them—we would see that our stories reach back centuries—millennia. In the end, these ribbons that tie us to our ancestors would reach back to the beginnings of time and encircle the whole world, showing how we all have our own tales that make us who we are, yet we also all share one story: the story of humankind.

So, I now carry this personal suitcase of stories with me through my life, from home to home, country to country, adding my own objects as I go. I look around my living room: I see the gold-gilded tea set glittering in the morning light; I smell the old wood of the cigar box that contains my grandfather’s penknife. It’s a strange, sad thought, to think of the objects and stories that are yet to be given to me, as if owed to me by the Devil, like something from one of our folktales: For it seems I’m still owed objects that contain even more secret stories—those that will be transmitted to me as their keeper as a fateful gift—that will only be given once another generation above me passes on into death. I wonder how many of these objects of folklore, and family legend, are still to be uncovered? As I sit, I wonder where the pocket watches, the pipes, and the photographs now squirrelled away safe in my grandmother’s wardrobe will be kept in my own house, many years from now. I wonder if the flute of my great grandfather–that severe and cruel man who is also the boy in the photo—will ever play a tune again. And I wonder if somewhere in the world someone is opening a wardrobe, to find, hanging quietly among the pressed shirts and cardigans, a strange old coat—stiff with age—in a faded military green, with badges displayed on its arms, and mould curling at its edges. The coat of a man who died in the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains, or the freezing Alps of Austria. With its own secret story that will now never pass the lips of the dead man that owned it, until at least, it gained a new tale when taken from his shoulders by a young man, in desperate hope of a new life, on a snow-capped mountaintop in a land ravaged by war?

I still find it hard to believe that Granny could have been queen, of course. But there’s always hope. Isn’t there?

Share your own family folklore with the hashtag #FolkloreThursday!

Many of us know our family trees, the genealogy of our family line. Many of us have objects, passed down through the family as heirlooms — a personal archaeology. Many of these items may also be folk objects, which scholars think about as items created by a particular culture group, like the cigar box depicting shepherds, or the flute, in my own story. And then there is the intangible cultural heritage that goes with them: the stories and traditions that are passed down, generation to generation, about the family history, the people in it, and the folk culture that they live within. All of these stories are a transmission of the culture of a people, of a folk group, and we are born into that, and carry that culture with us through our lives — joining, creating and adding new folk groups to our own identities as we shape our own lives.

So I will leave you with these questions: How would you describe yourself? Where does your sense of identity come from? How many groups or folk cultures do you think you belong to, all at once? How would you feel about yourself and your life if a different strand of your own family history was to be uncovered, for example if your family came from a different country or folk group? Tell us your family folklore this Thursday by sharing to the hashtag #FolkloreThursday: Show us your stories, photographs and objects!

Find out more:

Family Folklore
The House of Terror Museum
House of Terror Museum: The Torture Chamber
Hungary’s Torturous Past: Inside the House of Terror The House of Terror Museum

Dee Dee Chainey is a writer and co-founder of #FolkloreThursday. She curates weird and wonderful folklore from around the world for digital communities. Recent interviews include BBC Countryfile Magazine,The Independent, Vice UK and BBC World Service. When she's not pondering life, the universe and everything, Dee Dee enjoys walking, travelling and dreaming of French patisseries. Her first book, A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe, a beautifully illustrated introduction to the strange and varied lore of Britain, is available from National Trust Books. Her second, Treasury of Folklore – Seas and Rivers, co-authored with #FolkloreThursday's Willow Winsham and illustrated by Joe McLaren, is available from Batsford now. Their latest book, Treasury of Folklore – Woodlands and Forests: Wild Gods, World Trees and Werewolves, was released from Batsford in summer 2021. Dee Dee is a member of The Folklore Society.

Posts by:

Dee Dee Chainey

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.