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.