The Truth in Family Stories by Mary O’Connell

We gave my father-in-law, Jerry, a gift this past Christmas that has turned out to be a great blessing.  Using a company called StoryWorth, my father-in-law receives an emailed story prompt each week to help him share his stories with the family.  We have an added bonus – because typing isn’t his thing, I am privileged to be his transcriber.  He painstakingly writes his notes in long hand, comes over to our house, and dictates to me the stories of his memory and his heart.  I type them into the StoryWorth platform and they are shared with the family the moment I hit “Submit”.  At the end of the year, StoryWorth will make a printed book of his stories.

What a blessing it has been to hear these stories, some of which are legendary in the annals of family history and others never shared with me before. Even the most banal topics contain pearls of delight and wisdom.  Today, he stopped by to tell me about this first car. Eight cylinder engine, seven coats of paint, that kind of thing.  For some, car facts are enthralling; not being a “car person” I didn’t suspect I’d find anything too interesting in this story.  Silly me.  The story began with how the family’s car died in 1952 and, with nine mouths to feed, his parents didn’t have the money to buy another car.  Jerry, a teenager at the time, took the money from his own college savings to purchase a used 1938 Buick to share with his father so he could get to work each day.  This one little detail tells me so much about this man who is my father-in-law – I have always known him to be kind and generous, putting his devotion to family above all else.  I see this devotion started quite young. I think back to my own privileged blissfulness as a teenager – I would never have dreamed of having to take money from my savings to help out the family.  Friends, acne and general teenage angst were the extent of my worries at the time, with a part-time job providing me with a little spending money. Deciding between a new record album and a polo shirt were my biggest concerns.

The other great part of Jerry’s car story was the sideline narrative (there’s always a sideline story that emerges – sometimes written and sometimes shared with me while I’m typing to add context… these are the best parts, the juicy bits) of the culture of dating in 1952.  In Jerry’s small Wisconsin town, there were park dances for the teens.  If you didn’t go there with a date, you could offer to take a young lady home from the dance – if you had a car, which Jerry now did.  A unique feature of his car was that the passenger side front door didn’t work.  The young lady had to get into the car using the driver’s side door and slide over.  If she liked him, she didn’t always slide the whole way over to the other side.  The other unique thing about his car was the loud hammering noise from the engine because the tappets were broken, so the young ladies’ parents liked it, too. They could always hear their daughter arriving safely home from the dance.

My father-in-law has a remarkable memory for dates, times and places.  I suspect that even a history buff like Jerry gets some details wrong.  Heck, my husband and I will compare our recollection of a chat we had two days ago and one would swear we are recounting two different conversations!  If there is one truth, I suspect each of our perceptions contain nuggets of it.  So, too, with family stories.  Are they always “true”?  They are true to the person sharing the story, and in the sharing we communicate valuable lessons, we pass on fundamental values, and we share a bit of ourselves, too.  From these stories we get different glimpses of Truth, and we begin to realize that the definition of Truth is a matter of one’s perspective.  We only have to read the different creation stories from various cultures and religious traditions to see how those stories have shaped their development. Similarly, our family stories help us to see multiple truths rising and falling, emerging and receding as the years go by.  And they help weave the context of our family culture, which has formed us and continues to do so. Our stories help us see where attitudes, fears and strengths began, and as we listen, struggle and take the stories to heart, we begin to envision our way forward. We can begin to create a new story.


When her own children were young, Mary had a LifeWays home program with such a long waiting list that she decided a LifeWays center was necessary.  In 2002, she opened LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukee where she served as director for 13 years.

Mary has a business degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a student in the very first LifeWays training. She is a lead teacher and Training Coordinator for LifeWays North America and serves as Board President, and is the author of Observing Young Children, A Tool for Meaningful Assessment and co-author of  Home Away From Home: LifeWays Care of Children and Families with Cynthia Aldinger.

Mary’s favorite thing about LifeWays is seeing both children and their caregivers thrive in a home-like environment that truly values and respects them.