Telling an ancestor’s story

Telling a story about an ancestor can be a gift to oneself and to one’s family. It is powerful to have your stories heard. It is a great community building experience too, because it allows others to think about their own ancestors and stories.

Here is how Lisa Petrides and I created “Grandmothers from far lands” together.

Capturing the memories

We did a meditation to ask our grandmothers what they wanted conveyed in our storytelling. Then we both took some individual time to write down some of the things we remembered about our grandmothers. We thought about their history, things we liked about them, some hardships, our relationship with these women.

Collaborating – the similarities and contrasts

We got together and shared these stories and discovered that there were similar veins, for example, both our grandmothers had arranged marriages. It was through these marriages that they came to America. We also began to notice how different their lives were in America. Lisa’s grandmother lived in a city and my grandmother lived in a houseboat. Culturally their temperaments and styles were also a contrast we worked with.


Following the flow

We used the time line as the flow of the story. We started in their native countries and traveled over the ocean to America. We walked, following the shape of an infinity sign, to tell about the long ship journey. We brought in props which anchored their stories and clued viewers into where they were and what they were doing. As we took turns speaking, the other person swept the floor behind them. Lisa spoke in her grandmother’s voice as she washed dishes, and I was my grandmother as she washed the rice.

Practicing in the space

If at all possible practice in the space you will be performing in. This allows you to be more familiar with the sound level, lighting, seating, etc. If that isn’t possible, envision the space as you practice elsewhere.

Invite critiques

Before two shows we invited some folks in to critique our performance. We got some great feedback about background music and adding movement. We were able to make some changes which improved the show.



We did some advertising and promotion through the local newspapers, email, postcards, and posters. After doing all that preparation, it is nice to have an audience! Of course that all took some advance planning since the pr had to be out almost a month ahead of time.

Performing it

On the day of the performance try to take it easy so you will be at your best. We passed out brief programs so the audience could have something to read and follow what we were doing. We did a little introduction and then went into the 15 minute performance. At the end we invited the audience to participate by standing and speaking their own grandmother’s name and many did so.

Allow for transformation

Lisa and I have changed the performance each time we have done it. Sometimes it depended on the venue. We have told our grandmothers’ stories in an art gallery, a senior center, and at a yoga center. It is important to keep in mind who you are telling the story to. For example if I were to do it for seniors again, I would invite them to have a sharing session afterwards so they could share their own tales.

Sometimes the stories change themselves, revealing more memories to incorporate in the performance. Sometimes we change in the way we want to speak. Allow for fun, change, and mystery that evolves with memories and storytelling.

Suggested educational uses

Provide your students with a list of questions and possible ancestor they can research. Have them bring in photographs and stories they have gathered. The students will break into groups based on which ancestors they selected. They will meet and discuss similarities and contrasts. Have them write up a 15 minute script and practice their performance. Document their presentations using video and photography.

There are many overlapping tie-ins:

  • history
  • theater
  • social studies
  • language
  • culture
  • arts

The cruelty of children

If you’re a parent or a teacher, you may have come across kids being mean to each other once in a while. “This American Life” radio program features The Cruelty of Children. It features a reading by David Sedaris on his childhood summer camp trip to Greece and more. A third act segment on You Can’t Say You Can’t Play by Vivian Gussin Paley. Worth listening to, click here.  Via

Doris and Mary doll

I brought my mom (Doris) a present on my last visit to Reno. My friend and artist Judy Johnson-Williams made these wonderful family dolls for me in response to a family tree assemblage piece I did. I decided to bring one of the dolls to my mother who has Alzheimer’s and is in a full care facility. She speaks of her mother now and then, so I chose that doll to bring her. My grandmother, Mary, lived with my parents for many years, but the photo of her used on the doll was from a long time ago, when my mother was probably around 10. I wonder at what age my mother thinks of her?

The Book of Qualities

I went into Coastside Books today. I don’t know why. I was hoping I would come upon something quickly that I just had to have. I was supposed to be working on a powerpoint presentation – weird I had not been doing those is a long while and now I find myself doing two presentations on art in the last month.

Well anyway, the book. I found the book I had to have. A small book called “The Book of Qualities”, by J. Ruth Gendler. The author (who is also the artist) has written and illustrated a book about a cast of characters. These characters have names like: Truth, Blame, Beauty, Joy, Harmony, Panic, and more.

Here is the story about “Faith”.

Faith lives in the same apartment building as Doubt. When Faith was out of town visiting her uncle in the hospital, Doubt fed the cat and watered the asparagus fern. Faith is comfortable with Doubt because she grew up with him. Their mothers are cousins.Faith is not dogmatic about her beliefs like some of her relatives. Her friends fear that Faith is a bit stupid. They whisper that she is naive and she depends on Doubt to protect her from the meanness of life. It is the other way around. It is Faith who protects Doubt from Cynicism.

I googled Gendler and found out that she is a transformative art and poetry teacher in Berkeley!

And she is speaking on her new book “Notes on the Need for Beauty” 7pm, September 18 at the Gateways Bookshop, in Santa Cruz.

Check out more about her at her website:

“The mediocre teacher….”

The mediocre teacher tells.
The good teacher explains.
The superior teacher demonstrates.
The great teacher inspires.– William Arthur Ward

I think we have all had different kinds of teachers in our lives. I thought it would be interesting to share a positive learning experience. Please offer your stories in a comment.

candlelight and whirling red skirt

Our friend Tantric Paul took us to a wonderful place called the Green Tea Palace. It is a little place near the Santa Fe plaza, is 2 months new and run by Leland and Vera. The cafe was beautiful in candle light and spiritual art from around the world and also the art of their daughter Beri adorned the adobe walls. Regular tables and chairs are interspersed with cushy pillows and low tables. While a very pregnant Vera cooked all the healthy food, some of it raw; her husband Leland , (with one daughter on his hip), ran around and made space for every person who stuck their head in the door, drawn to the wonderful live music like moths to a lantern. He rearranged chairs, and asked people to make room in such a gracious way, that everyone complied with a smile. Their kids, Beri and Rose ran around and enjoyed the music, while baby Jasmine slept in a stroller near her mother. Watching this family navigate their business and enjoy their customers was very heart warming.


The incredible music was provided by “The Shiva Brothers” who played together for the first time. Musicians included Danesh – sitar and guitar; Paul – bells and percussion, Adam – urdu, and our own HMBer Ander – electric bass. They had a special guest, Sita, a wonderful woman who chanted and played harmonium. The music was very moving and special. I do not think one could listen to it without feeling glowy (is that a word?).


One gentleman, Oma, got so into the sounds that he put on his dervish red skirt and twirled up a storm. He’s from the Carolinas (can’t remember which one) but looks like he is from Morocco and specializes in sculpting pregnant women using clay. When asked why pregnant women, he answered, “How else will more Goddesses come into the world?”

The Green Palace Tea House
209 East Palace Ave
Santa Fe, NM 87501