The oldest of the clan was recounting some tale of how her husband once caught an octopus while fishing off the Pacific coast. She was absorbed in her tale — using arms to animate the action of eight legs fighting as her husband released it.
She’d hoped to entertain the young boy sitting across from her. Before she’d launched into her tale, he had been wiggling about like an octopus on a pole, which was probably what triggered the story. But the tale she told was too old for the five-year old — it flew over his head and across the restaurant dining room to me.
The child said nothing in response. Perhaps the boy didn’t know what to make of the old story or the old woman telling it. There was a formality between them that stamped her as ‘just visiting.’ In between the man and the storyteller sat a woman who bridged two generations — daughter to one and mother to the other. She too, didn’t say a word.
The picture perfect family, four generations strong, was going through the ritual of keeping family. Yet the three adults at the table were occupied by their salad greens, leaving family stories to die untended on the old woman’s lips. It was ten seconds before the man broke silence between bites of his salad. “Is that right, Grandma.”
The lone response was too late to be anything more than polite. It left me sad, as these days, I find myself adopting all sorts of scraps from my parent’s lives to help keep family stories alive. Yesterday, I brought home four ice tea spoons. I’ve no need for these early sixties relics. I have sixteen already in the drawer. And I don’t even sweeten my iced tea. But I had to have them anyway. Now they are odd men out, taking up space, keeping company with others that don’t resemble their pattern.
Handing stories on to the next generation can make one feel like odd man out. The practice of storytelling requires thick skin; stories often go begging for a listening ear — even when heard, children won’t always get the storyteller or their stories.
This need to preserve stories is a generation thing. Like that great-grandmother sitting across from me the other night; with seventy or eighty years of living bottled up inside, can you imagine how hard it was to keep stories from spilling over her lips. Maybe she should consider spoon-feeding.
Apparently even within families there are some basic requirements for successful story-telling. Shared experience helps, not to mention a desire on someone’s part to hear the story. A couple of the phrases you used tell a story of their own: “picture perfect” and “going through the ritual”. We’ll excuse the five year old for an assortment of reasons, but it sounds as though the others at the table were giving grandma an experience of what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian in a dead room.
….ok I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes trying to get a handle on something. I can’t, quite, but I’ll put it sort-of-down anyhow.
Mom tells a lot of stories. Some of them I roll my eyes, start watching tv out of the corner of my eye or tell her I’m listening while I empty the dishwasher. Other times, I’m completely involved and rapt.
The difference seems to be whether I can find any way to connect to the story. If she’s talking about grandma’s terrible pancakes, I’m there. If she’s talking about Lucille B, and her exploits with the girls’ basketball team in 1930 – meh.
Any story that begins “do you remember when…” usually gets attention. Stories that begin “I remember when…” don’t. So, for the story-teller or writer, the trick is to get the listener or reader to actively remember something of their own, rather than passively listening to someone else’s memories.
As I said – not good, but the best I can do for now!
I know well what you say. Sitting on the other side, with parents now gone, I recall my own eye rolling and distracted attention when they would recall some story — especially one I’d heard many times before. But even on those tired old stories, I wish I’d paid closer attention to the way the story was told — I wish Id asked more questions to dig deeper into motivations and feelings.
But isn’t this part and parcel of the human condition — what lives in our backyard we rarely visit — what lives thousands of miles away warrants our closest attention. Like Denali Park today.
I thoroughly enjoyed Zinsser’s Writing on Your Life. Thanks again for the recommendation. Zinsser has a bit in the early pages of his book that speaks to what we’ve been talking around. I don’t have the book in front of me, but the gist of it goes something like this: Who we are comes out of who our ancestors were — knowing their stories help us know ourselves. I’m finding this to be true as I write and think about Daddy’s life.