Tag Archives: family storytelling

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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You CAN Go Home Again and Live to Tell the Tale

loveuThis is my last hour in my hometown in a New York City suburb. I have been visiting my family here for a week. In seven short days, I have kissed and cavorted with members of four generations. I am not anxious to leave them.

During the time we’ve been together, we have communed not only with each other, but also with those who are not with us. My mother’s half-brother reminds me, for the first time, of my beloved grandfather, who died 11 years ago. We have discussed various details of my deceased father’s personality. We have debated the job prospects of my niece back in L.A.

Through it all, we have told stories. Before becoming a professional storyteller, I never realized that I had grown up in a family of storytellers. For that matter, before becoming a teacher of storytelling, I never realized that virtually all families are families of storytellers.

My mother told me the following story off the top of her head when I was six years old, and she was 32: There was a Volkswagen named Pickles. She was very wrinkled, so she bought wrinkle cream. She spread so much wrinkle cream all over her body that she disappeared.

That’s not the kind of story I was thinking of, necessarily, and it doesn’t technically qualify as a family story. I was compiling an anthology at the time, and I was annoying my mother to contribute something. She told me this off the top of her head. The reason I bring it up is that years later, it is the story about her telling me this story that has become a family story. With time and reflection, I can see that growing older was something that was beginning to bother her (did I mention that she owned a Volkswagen), at a time when she had recently started attending college.  Imagining my mother’s feelings at age 32, when she was impossibly old to me at an age that now strikes me as impossibly young, is interesting. At least to me.

So is walking around the park in which I cut classes (actually we cut lunch, but that’s too embarrassing to admit right off the bat) from junior high, kissed my 16-year-old boyfriend and ice skated. I have so many memories of my hometown, both good and bad, that, in communication terms, the “noise” can at times be overwhelming. That is to say, I sometimes quite literally have trouble seeing and hearing what is all around me in the present, because the past insists on intruding. This is not necessarily a problem; after all, I do not work and live there. But I keep thinking: How can I stop coming here, once my mom no longer lives in this town? How can I ever hold onto my past if I no longer walk these streets?

I know that it’s unusual to have one’s mother live in the same house for more than 50 years. I know it’s not common to be able to go home again. And so many people would like nothing less. But for me, the trip back to that New York suburb is a constant source of nourishment. I recall what I wanted, what I got, what I didn’t want, what I wasn’t able to get. It doesn’t always make me happy. But it reminds me that I survived it. Every bit of it. And that, at least, is deeply satisfying.