Thursday, April 7, 2016

Family Lore

Family Lore

I've always been passionate about stories, sometimes to my determent. More than once I was in a bit of trouble at school for using Show and Tell as an opportunity to tell strange tales, although they seemed quite plausible to me. Never one to let reality ruin a good story, introvert that I was and remain, I didn't hesitate to turn the most mundane events into high drama. I've always loved a good story even if I had to make it up.

A little older and wiser, I became a collector of stories. Stories are everywhere of course, but I found a rich vein of stories at the heart my quiet, conventional family. I took in the immigrant stories from my father's side and the pioneer stories from my mother's people. For reasons that have always alluded me, almost none of these stories were told to me directly, but told from adult to adult with the assumption that the quiet child in the corner wasn't paying attention, but she was.

Sometimes I was shooed out of the room, but I was resourceful and as quiet as a stone when I sensed the chance of adding to my store of family lore. The old Sears Roebuck farmhouse my uncle lived in had a wonderful pantry that sat mostly unused except by me on Sunday. While preparing Sunday dinner, my mother and my uncle's housekeeper would talk for hours while they cooked up the overdone roasts and filled the relish trays. I sat behind the door in the pantry, that somehow always smelled of lemon cookies, and heard about the romances and scandals that had occurred years before, usually to people I'd never heard of. My father and his brother would walk the vineyards or explore the delights of a new tractor while they reminisced about the mischievous boys they had replaced with their somber selves. As long as I stayed away from heavy equipment, I seemed to be invisible to the men, something I counted on.

In contrast, my wheelchair-bound grandmother seemed to know I was absorbing every word and would feed me snippets about my grandfather who drowned when my father was a small boy. (His obituary stated that the tailor drowned from the weight of his own clothes.) Sometimes she'd talk about being a maid to Jefferson Davis's fat daughter in Chicago or how her father had helped to excavate a Viking ship in Sweden or maybe it was Norway. Or perhaps it was her grandfather who was involved. Like me, my grandmother didn't fuss too much about details or absolute reality.  

This weekend I attended an event featuring a musician and storyteller who grew up in his grandmother's house, just a few doors down from our home. He regaled us with stories of unscrewing seats at the movie theater, prom flowers that smelled of embalming fluid because they'd been in cold storage with a corpse, and the time his father set a match to the newly tarred Main Street, setting the whole street on fire with a horrific whoosh, Directly in front of him sat a group of women who had been his childhood friends. Since it was a casual event, these women didn't hesitate to correct him and remind him how it really happened. Like older sisters, they wanted to set the record straight or at least tell the story they remembered, the story that belonged to them.

I've often thought, and said, that stories are the thing that set us apart from the animals, perhaps the only thing that sets us apart from the animals. Story is the also the beginning of all art and religion. Every brush stroke, every note of music, every theatrical performance, every photograph, every creation begins with the concept of story. Every god and goddess began with an attempt to explain us and every religion gives us stories about how to navigate the world.

This week-end my husband asked me to tell our dinner guests a story from my mother's side of the family. It's a really good story set in Colorado in the 19th century and I think I heard it from my Great Aunt Ida, another one who loved a good story. In truth, it's such a good story I think there is a better than even chance it never happened and it seems even more unlikely that it happened anyone in my family. Still, after the disclaimer I told the story because a story needs to be told. I think it's only a matter of time before one of guests tells the story to someone else. The story will be altered in small ways as all good stories need to be. It will become someone else's story and that is how it should be.