November 14th, 2012
Tall-tale-telling imp in the making.
My dad is a master storyteller who always gets the punchline or dramatic pause just right. My siblings and I spent many nights perched on the side of our beds listening wide-eyed and rapt to tales of my dad’s haunted childhood or how his grandpa lay dynamite to build a railroad one long day and never came home. One of our favorites was the story of my dad as a kid, hawking newspapers on the street corner, yelling, “Extra, extra, read all about it! Whorehouse burns down, leaving 3,000 Camp McCoy soldiers homeless!” Then there’s the long line of lushes we descend from, and fortunes won and lost thanks to the booze. Oh, and the dynamite. Those infernal sticks decimated half the men on my dad’s side of the family.
So he says.
Boys and girls, you should HEAR my dad’s Navy stories.
If my dad were a writer, his stories would be memoir gold.
Thing is, my mom was the writer. While dad would tell us his tall tales, mom wrote the family stories down, like her dad did. Unfortunately many stories died with my mom and my grandpa and over the years, I’ve missed the black and white link to our heritage; of how much hen’s eggs cost in 1920 and how the whole town helped great-grandpa build his house in Fargo, North Dakota. Mom’s stories weren’t funny, but they were real and meaty and true. She also was our family transcriptionist. Somewhere there is a paper with every address to every house we ever lived in as a family. Somewhere else are journal snippets of us kids. Who polished his pennies every night before bed, who pulled his hair out in great clumps, who brought potato bugs to the dinner table, who devoured Nancy Drew under the bedsheets and eventually lost her eyesight to reading in the dark. The four of us are separated by distance and kids and time these days, but those stories bind us together across it all.
My mom passed away before I was married, before I had kids, before I was old enough to appreciate that each drop of my blood holds the DNA for thousands of stories and why that matters. When I was pregnant with Toots, I grew aware that we are all part of a chain and that a big link was irrevocably gone. I’d call my dad and ask, “What was mom like when she was pregnant with me?” “What was I like as a baby?” “Did mom sing to me?” and he didn’t have the answers. Here was my dad, the pied piper of stories, fresh out. I still don’t know if he couldn’t bear to think of my mom as young and alive, or if he just didn’t remember as he traveled so very much. Whatever the reason, I sensed the final and complete loss of my stories, the link to my mom, like a knife wound. A final cut. I imagined myself an astronaut, the kind from those B movies, who left the ship, got sucked into a black hole, and floated in the darkness for years, untethered and removed.
Just told one of his stories. This was my mom’s quintessential reaction.
After awhile I gave up asking for the stories, until one day when my dad sent me an email, unbidden and surprising, with details of how he and my mom met. No tales. Just pure and simple, black and white stories. Then another email with more stories, and then more.
This is both welcome and heartbreaking. Does he feel the link might break again? Is he worried about floating in the darkness?
And then I think: a day must come when the storyteller realizes the stories he tells are not just for the listeners, they are for him too.
Or maybe, it’s like what he sent this morning in the last line of an email to my brother in Singapore, my sister in North Dakota, my other brother in New York, and me here in San Diego:
It’s good to make note of these things.