Sucked into a Whirlpool

One Family's Attempt to Maintain their Individuality Through Stories

by Karen-Jayne Leech
# 1999-039

This paper is property of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive. Users are required to cite NVFA, paper ID number, and author.




My family prides itself on its sense of humor. My mom, dad, sister, and myself have always been able to laugh at our mistakes, and we sometimes repeat our stories to our friends. Our stories often center around times when we did something differently to how it was supposed to be done, either on purpose or by mistake. We are not originally from the United States, which factors into some of the hidden meanings behind our stories. We moved to Virginia from South Africa in 1990 and, at the time of the writing of this paper, are in the process of attaining citizenship status. I would argue that our family stories highlight the fact that we are not American, that we do not fit into the norm, and that we like to be little different.

Our stories emphasize the distinction that my family makes between us and them. While this distinction is not made in ill-will, and my family and I are quite content living in the U.S., our stories highlight our attempts to distinguish ourselves from the masses. Some of them are just funny things that happened to us, either on vacation or any other normal situation, and many of them deal with cultural differences that we have noticed and found amusing. For example: less than a week after we moved here we stopped at a Giant supermarket to pick up a few items. My dad went up to the cashier while we unloaded the shopping basket. The cashier asked my dad, "Paper or Plastic?" and he replied, "Cash." She gave him a blank look and repeated her question, this time a little louder, and my dad, thinking that she had not heard him the first time, responded, "CASH." The cashier was confused, my dad was confused, and my mom had to step forward and explain to him that they didn1t want to know how we were going to pay, they wanted to know what kind of bags we needed. Everybody had a big laugh over it and we held onto the story as an example of a funny cultural misunderstanding. There were many more to come as we adapted to the American way of life.

Over the years my accent has almost disappeared, partly in an adolescent attempt to fit in, partly the effects of time. Now, without that overt distinguisher, I find myself looking for a way to reidentify myself as South African. I believe that I unconsciously use family stories as a way to connect with my family who, in turn, uses them to separate themselves from the norm. The story that I am going to analyze is interesting when considering how my family likes to go against the grain and do things in a way that makes us stand out. Although the story does not deal with cultural or societal differences, as many of our stories do, it still symbolizes our attempts to maintain our individual family identity. While what happened to us was an accident, it has somehow become a symbol of my family1s individual spirit.

The story is one that we tell when the conversation turns to camping, vacations, or when people come to our house and see a particular photograph in our living room; we do not tell it very often, only when the time is right. In order to have a written transcript, I found it necessary to tape record myself telling the story to two of my co-workers at the gift store where I work part-time. Both women, Ginger and Claire, knew that I would be doing some work for a school project, but they did not know when. I broached the topic when Claire, who had been having a rather bad day, mentioned that she needed a pick-me-up. I offered to tell her funny story and proceeded to get my tape recorder and the photograph, which I had brought with me. I kept the picture hidden until the end of my story. Telling Claire and Ginger my family1s story was a lot of fun. They were receptive to my request to tape my story and were an attentive audience.


My family had gone
white-water rafting
up in Pennsylvania---
this is a couple of years ago.
We went to the Ohio river with some
friends of ours
for the weekend.
And there was --um--
we went on this white-water
excursion thing...
They take you out in groups
of maybe thirty---
with maybe four in a boat.
(Audience nods their understanding.)
And so we had done this thing
and at one point
they were going to take your picture--
And they told you to---
it’s like---
at the roughest the rapids get
they take your picture
so it’s like a real action shot.
And so
we’re having a good time
we’re going down the river
and we’re keeping ourselves straight
and everything...
And there’s a guy in the boat
(Gestures to right.)
who’s like --you know--
the leader
I guess--
and he’s making sure everyone
gets down these rapids okay...
And then the other guy
taking the picture
is on land
(Gestures to left.)
off to the side.
So we’re coming along
we’re having a good time
(Mimics rowing action.)
and the guy Points to the right.
goes, "OK...look to your left
and say ‘cheese!’"
we got distracted
we looked to the right
looked to the left---
we got
sucked into this whirlpool
(Laughs and makes circular motion with hand. Laughter from audience.)
We spun around
two times
and we went shooting
down the rapids.

Can you just see Karen? (Laughs.)
Goin’ down the.... (Laughs.)
So we get to the end
and we-- um--
they take you out
and you get into buses
and you go back up to the top
and they
give you lunch
like a sandwich or something...
And then they put
all the people’s pictures out
so you can buy your pictures...
(Expectant laughter from audience.)
And we go up to look
and everyone’s
and laughing
at this one group...
(Starts laughing. Pause. Laughter from audience.)
We don’t need to
ask which group
. (Pause.)
The ones that didn’t know
left from right?

And we made
my Dad buy it
we ended up
going down
backwards and
(Shows picture. See Figure 1. Burst of laughter from audience. Speaker laughing.)
Is that great
or what?

Oh Jeez...
It was so funny---
we were like,
"Oh my God
you have to buy this...
they gotta stop
pointing at us.

That is too...
They’d show that forever
if you didn’t buy it
you know...
They probably
still have a copy.

They probably still have it
and they’re showing people...

Ginger: (Pointing to an imaginary picture.)
This is the way you’re
supposed to
go down.


This story demonstrates several values that my family holds in high regard. First, we are not against trying something new. We had never gone white-water rafting before, only canoeing in New Hampshire, but we were up for the challenge. By telling this story we are able to show our audience that we are the adventurous types, even though this may not always be the case. Second, it demonstrates our ability to laugh at ourselves. Our feigned embarrassment at having our picture laughed at was merely a way of getting my dad to buy it. Had we actually been embarrassed I would argue that the picture would have been thrown away or hidden. Third, and I think, most important, our white-water story shows how we like to do normal things a little differently. I think that there is a little part of my family that believes that we went down backwards on purpose because the other way was just too boring.

Oftentimes storytelling is a way for families to invent themselves. Repeating family stories reinforces the underlying values that those stories represent and contributes to the creation of a family’s ideal. In her book, Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins, Elizabeth Stone examines the ways in which families use their stories to mold themselves to a specific type. She writes: "Family stories . . . define the family, saying not only what members should do, but who they are or should be" (31). My family’s rafting story fits this description. We want to be somewhat adventurous and daring, and, although my mother has sworn never to go rafting again, we have the picture to show that we once were as we imagine ourselves to be.

Lying latent within this story is the issue of assimilation. My family has been living in Virginia for nine years, and over that time we have definitely subscribed to a number of American values and traditions. But while we may be as American as the next family on a day to day basis, we are loathe to get too close to the typical picture of an American family. In an effort to stay the gradual onset of an American way of life we use our stories as a method of maintaining an air of separateness. Our stories subconsciously emphasize certain familial traits, which, according to Stone, "will almost always demonstrate that the family is indeed ‘special’ and in some ways superior to all other families" (35). While the issue of individuality is definitely the most important aspect of our rafting story, it can also be analyzed from several other angles.

In his essay, "Family Folklore," Charles R. Frederick writes: "The dual nature of folklore, simultaneously illustrating singularity and evoking commonality can be observed to good effect through the study of family materials" (171). This story is an excellent example of the way in which my family was simultaneously a part of a group and an individual. We were a part of a larger exoteric group with the thirty or more people on the excursion that day: we had the same boats, the same life-jackets, and the same oars. We did everything else that the rest of the group did, and in that respect, identified with the group. Within our individual raft, however, we acted as an esoteric group. We separated ourselves further from the larger group by going down the rapids with our backs to the camera, and, in that regard, we were unique. Out of the eight or ten pictures that were posted on the board outside the main office ours was the only one that did not look like all the rest.

I believe that the photograph plays a very important role in my family’s story (see Figure 1). It is not very often that we tell it without the picture present. It acts like a physical punchline to a joke, and people respond best to our story when they see it for themselves. The photograph was taken by a skilled photographer with professional equipment. The picture is perfectly balanced and in focus. The size of the picture, eight inches by ten, is not insignificant. Even though we had no choice with regards to the size of the copy it is much more effective as a large picture than it would have been, had it been three inches by five, or smaller. The picture announces itself. It stays on top of a cabinet in our living room, among ten or fifteen other photographs which include wedding pictures, school pictures, and family outings or vacations. Along with the two wedding photos, it is the largest picture on the shelf. In his book, A World of Their Own Making, John R. Gillis examines the ways in which family values have been shaped through myth and ritual over the past century. He addressed the popularity of family photos, emphasizing that they were, and are, "less a statement of what the family actually was than what it imagined itself to be" (78). This idea reinforces Elizabeth Stone’s argument, and reaffirms my family’s concept that we are the adventurous and daring family that we imagine ourselves to be. The emotional value we place in the photo is also an important part of the story. For my family I think the picture acts as physical proof of our little adventure. Anyone can say that they went rafting and that a funny thing happened on the way down the river, but we have the picture to prove it.

As has been examined by countless folklorists, family folklore is a rich and telling area of information. The stories that families repeat offer an insight into the dynamics on which that family functions, and by which they define themselves. My family’s stories show us to be a close-knit group which takes any opportunity that comes along to reaffirm our individuality. After considering information that has a bearing on the family as a whole, such as cultural heritage, a more complete understanding can be reached regarding the meaning of one particular story. Our unusual trip down the river, for example, is not just a funny vacation anecdote; it is a symbol of my family’s attempt to stay afloat in a widening cultural sea.


Works Cited

Frederick, Charles R. "Family Folklore." The Emergence of Folklore in Everyday Life. Ed. George H. Schoemaker. Bloomington: Trickster Press, 1990. 171-173

Gillis, John R. A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Stone, Elizabeth. Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us. New York: Times Books, 1988.


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