When Storytelling Does Not Promote Memory

dadA funny thing happened to me recently on the way to a story. I had related a family tale about my deceased father for my column in the Sun-Sentinel Jewish Journal and sent the piece to my mom, because I thought it would please her. It did, but she pointed out a correction: The plot of the story was just as I had described it from memory, but I had misremembered the setting. I set the story at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where logic told me it had occurred, because it involved my Trenton-based grandfather’s visiting my dad in 1942 at an Army base. However, the story had actually happened at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

There are times, like this one, when life imitates academia. I am always explaining to students that in the heyday of the oral tradition, when the tribal storyteller told the story of a hunt, it made no difference  whether 10 or 12 buffalo were killed; what mattered was the bravery of the hunters and the beasts. That’s why the oral tradition worked so well—numbers and details were largely unimportant, so each generation could fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, insight and knowledge. (Sort of like some of our reportage today.) It wasn’t until commerce emerged that it mattered just how many buffalo hides were traded for just how many sheaves of wheat.

Truth, my explanation continues, comes in many forms. Two of them are (1) documentable, verifiable truth, the kind that the media (largely) aim for, and (2) universal, human Truth, such as love, fear, greed and heroism. The first kind is largely an illusion: there are so many perspectives on any one event, it is often impossible to pin down the mercury-like bubble of fact. We simply do our best. The second is more meaningful, to my mind, but appears to many eyes, and hearts, as the stuff of children’s stories, old wives’ tales, or worse. Sometimes, of course, it is. Just not always.

There is at least one reason that I will, from now on, correct my misconception about that story. My grandfather was sent (by my grandmother) with an urgent message to prevent my father from becoming a paratrooper: If he jumped out of a plane with a parachute, she told him, she would jump off her roof with an umbrella. It is even more amazing that my grandfather took a train from Trenton to North Carolina in 1942 to deliver this message than that he drove the few miles to the base in New Jersey.

In other words, it’s a better story. That means that people will have an easier time remembering it, and the values inherent in it (family love, humor, etc.) will have a greater impact. To my mind, that’s the best reason to correct it.

P.S. This family story might have taken place in 1943 or 1944. Does it matter? If more paratroopers were dying in a certain year, I would say it makes for a better story!

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