At the Prather family’s Thanksgiving dinner, I, as our clan’s reluctant patriarch, gave a brief speech before I said grace.
We should remember those who made it possible for us to be there, I said, those who’ve since gone on to their glory: My mom, my dad, my first wife, Renee.
I mentioned my grandparents, too.
Then, nodding toward my sister, I said, “Cathi and I are the only ones left who actually knew Grandma and Papa Chestnut and Granny and Papa Prather.”
After I’d prayed, I felt a tug on my arm.
My granddaughter Harper, 9, said, “You said nobody knew your grandparents. But I know them.”
I thought she was confused.
“No, honey, they all died a long time before you were born.”
“Yes,” she said, “but I know them from the stories you’ve told me about them.”
After the turkey was eaten and everyone had returned to their own homes, Harper’s comment stuck with me.
She was right, in ways she’s probably still too young to comprehend.
For many of us, about all we know of those who came before us is from the stories others have told us, stories passed on by parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors and older siblings.
Even in cases where we ourselves did know the folks now departed, our memories are shaped by the tales others tell about them, too. Our memories and others’ memories intertwine and shift and bend.
After our forebears no longer exist as corporeal human beings, with minds and blood vessels and lungs and words of their own, they exist as characters we form and reform across the decades in our stories.
My Granny Prather was born at the turn of the 20th century in southeastern Kentucky. When she was a girl about Harper’s age, many of the old people around her remembered the Civil War firsthand.
Granny used to tell a tale she’d heard as a child, about a woman in their community who loved to cook and equally loved to eat.
This woman’s husband was off fighting in the war. She invited a bunch of her kin to her cabin and made them a mess of pigs’ feet, her favorite food.
After she’d served her family, she finally got to sit down to the table herself.
Just as she was eagerly tearing into a pig’s foot, a soldier came galloping up her to house, jumped off his horse and banged on the door.
Rushing inside, he said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but there’s been a battle and your husband’s been killed.”
The lady didn’t even look up from her plate.
“Ma’am, maybe you didn’t hear me,” the messenger insisted. “Your husband is dead.”
“Aw, I heard you the first time,” the lady said, chewing. “And as soon as I finish these pigs’ feet, you’ll hear some screaming.”
Granny thought it was funniest tale ever. And so did I. I still think it’s funny, partly because in my mind I see Granny telling it, hear her cackling.
And so, that lady with the pigs’ feet lives on. Through Granny. Through me. Perhaps through Harper someday.
I don’t even know the pigs’ feet lady’s name anymore or whether she belonged to our family. She no doubt endured all her appointed decades, lived thousands of 24-hour days filled with boredom and joy and grief and pigs’ feet and bills to pay and crops ruined by hail, day after endless day.
Now, as far as I’m aware, all that’s left 150 years later is that one story.
And who’s to know if that tale was ever true, or only half-true, or entirely made up? Who’s to know if the version I just told you matches much the version Granny told me so many years ago?
Stories are tricky that way.
Today, the reservoir of memories about Granny Prather herself is draining fast, as those of us who knew her well continue to pass, one by one.
But I tell the things about her I can recall, as faithfully as I can recall them.
To Harper, Granny Prather lives. Harper says she’s met her.
Someday, Harper and my other grandkids will tell their children and grandchildren stories about me.
Of course, I’ll have no control over which random moments from my life survive in their minds, no control over what they tell or how they tell it — whether they get the facts right, whether they recall me generously or judgmentally or downright ridiculously.
Sometimes my son tells stories about me from his childhood and I think, “Um, no. That’s not how it happened.” Or I think, “Really? I said that?”
Someday, my grandchildren’s grandchildren will know me only through such stories.
Even so, a tiny fragment of me will then live here on earth, in descendants I’ve never met. We’ll then be connected in a way that’s emotional as much as genetic.
My name will be invoked like a magic talisman that pulls those children back to their distant past, and that propels me forward into their hearts.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.