Friday, April 6, 2012

Tell Me a Story

"In Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”  
—C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

• • • • •

My grandmother had a black eye. She also had a tremendous bruise on the back of her leg, vaster and more technicolored than any I'd ever seen. She was sporting the injuries of a prizefighter after a street brawl, but there was no violent tale to tell—no sweat or glory or heroic story behind those black and blue welts. They were simply the evidence of an aging body—of the falls she has taken in recent weeks while trying to perform the mundane task of walking from one room to the next. My grandmother is 92 years old, so her failing health should have come as no surprise, but during the last month her decline was sudden and precipitous. Although she has begun to improve, she remains weak, and tired, and frustrated by her inability to perform basic tasks.

My grandmother, who once spent her Saturday nights swing dancing at the Hollywood Palladium to the live music of Benny Goodman, can hardly stand without help. She, who never left the house without every strand of her thick red tresses pinned perfectly in place, now struggles to lift her arm to brush the tangles from her thin white hair. She, whose graceful fingers once speed-typed scripts for Jack Benny at NBC studios, can hardly bend her crooked knuckles to sign her own name.

Her health and strength may rebound as they have done so many times in the past, but they may not. And as I visit her and try to help her in what small ways I can, I am constantly nagged by the realization that so much of her story is unknown to me, that there must be countless episodes of her life's adventure that  will go unremembered and untold.

Here is my grandmother, living right in my own town—even in the same house for a time—for all these years, and I have hardly begun to explore the pages of her history. I feel like that person who, having lived her whole life in New York City, is now about to leave it forever and is realizing she's never visited the Statue of Liberty, never seen the view from the top of the Empire State Building, never attended a Broadway show, never strolled through Central Park. It was always there, so I could do it anytime. And now time is nearly up. I have had this tremendous and enviable array of stories and memories close at hand for nearly two decades, and I have not availed myself of it. Her life spans nearly a century, but I could not recount more than a pitiful handful of the episodes that her long story comprises.

• • • • •

Realizing that the time I will have with my grandmother is limited, I started making a point of hearing at least one story from her every time I visit. As we chat, I simply ask a few questions, and then I sit back and listen as she turns to the colorful pages of her past. These hours with my grandmother have been some of the most rewarding of my life. In one short hour I was with her recently, scene after scene unfolded before my imagination.

She told me stories of family members whose names I'd never heard. I learned that her grandfather died in a coal mine collapse, and that her grandmother, who never remarried, spent the subsequent years cooking meals for the coal miners in order to support herself and her two young sons—Grandma's father and his brother, Charlie. 

She told me how her father was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to be the postmaster of their small Illinois town, and how the subsequent postmaster was so incompetent that her father remained on the job to perform the other man's duties. She chuckled as she suddenly remembered a huge, friendly German postal carrier named Otto who delivered the mail on horseback and who knew everybody in town.

With a wry smile, Grandma recounted her first date. A high school senior had invited her, a lowly freshman, to the Fireman's Ball, and was she ever flattered! Knowing how much she loved to dance, her parents gladly gave her permission to go, and her mother immediately set to work sewing her a new dress for the occasion. At the ball, the high school coach—a young newlywed nicknamed "Hap" who had been a friend of Grandma's older brother—was cutting the rug with his pretty wife. As they spun around, they both lost their balance, stumbled, and fell right on top of Grandma and her date, knocking them to the floor where they all fell into fits of embarrassed laughter. Grandma laughed till the tears came as she remembered it.

And tears continued to trickle down her creased and freckled cheeks as she told me about the painful years of World War II when her brother, Rock, served on a munitions ship carrying explosives across the Atlantic from New York to England, always fearing attack by the Germans. Her voice quavered as she recalled how she never knew where her youngest brother, Ken, was during those years or whether he was still alive. She frequented the movie house, partly for distraction, partly to see if she could glimpse a familiar face—his face—in the news reels at the start of every show. She did not hear a word from Ken until he came home, and he would tell only one story from his time serving in the Marines: his unit had stormed the beaches at Guadalcanal, and as they neared land, he was certain that they were all going to die. As they ran together up the tropical sand, the men on either side of him were shot and killed, but somehow Ken survived. And that was all he could bring himself to tell her.
One hour with my grandmother was all it took to sit and relive all these scenes, and a half dozen more, from her colorful life. One hour. And this is just the beginning. I could have made a point of doing this countless times before, so why didn't I? Even at 92, my grandmother's mind is still lucid and her memories  vivid, so I am learning as much as I can in the time that we have left.

I know that every cinematic genre is represented in the sweeping screenplay of Grandma's life—action, comedy, adventure, tragedy, romance—and at this late hour, I am realizing how much of the plot is simply mystery—at least to me. Having casually walked in near the end of the show, I am now scrambling to find out how to stop and rewind to the better scenes before the screen fades and the credits roll.

• • • • •

In revisiting the the Little House series of books this year, I have been struck by the gift that Pa had for telling stories to his girls—stories about his own life and about his family. His daughter Laura committed those stories to memory and was able to put them in writing so that generations of readers can still enjoy and learn from them. What a gift. What a legacy.

I suspect that we as a culture are losing the art of handing down family stories. We bequeath physical objects—furniture and jewelry—to our posterity, but how often do we think of stories as a valuable part of our inheritance? I have only recently begun to think of stories in that way myself. But now that my grandmother's story is nearing its final chapters, I want to hang on—and hang on to—every word of her recollections. I want to remember them and bequeath them to my own children, precious heirlooms that cannot be broken but that can be easily lost.

As I've considered what questions I should be asking my grandmother, I have also been asking myself what family stories I hope to pass on to my own children and grandchildren. What form should these stories take if I want them to be remembered? What can I do to make these stories a joy to hear? A good story well told can express powerful truths that will stay with us far longer than any abstract proposition. Good stories give shape and color and texture to ideas. Good stories put flesh on words. And family stories can also help us to understand our own lives in the context of history.

My great-great grandmother raised two sons on her own by cooking meals for men who worked in the mine that had killed her husband. As a child, my grandfather was struck on the knuckles at school for speaking Norwegian instead of English. And years later, those same knuckles were lost entirely in a logging accident involving a chainsaw. My great uncle narrowly escaped being shot to death in the South Pacific. When my great-grandmother's dear friend fell ill and came from St. Louis to live with the family until she could recover, my great-grandfather had to seek special permission from the city council to have this woman stay with them—because she was black. These family memories help me to see my own experiences from a different perspective. Their lives helped shape the story of my own life. This is part of my inheritance; those stories are my stories.

So what if we made a point to not only read to our children but to share our own stories with them? What if our children grew up with a sense of their own history, of their unique place in the greater narrative arc of time? We have a history that bears repeating. In Scripture, the people of Israel were commanded to tell the story of their Exodus from Egypt to their children (Deut 4:9-10). The people were told to take care lest they forget. And if we are able to see our own lives in the context of history—as a brief chapter in a tale that stretches back to the first "Let there be"—then we may realize that the Exodus is also a part of our own story as much as it was part of theirs. And we forget it at our peril.

But forgetting is all too easy. Remembering will take work. It will take writing and repeating and re-telling. It will involve more talking around the table, more asking, more listening, more patience. In this tweet-riddled age, we rarely produce so much as a handwritten letter to save in a box of keepsakes, let alone a book of family history to pass on to our posterity. So, as I focus on collecting my grandmother's stories, I also need to think about how to collect my own stories and how to teach my children to do the same. We may need to spend some time learning the Calormene art of storytelling if our lives' narratives are going to amount to more than a disconnected series of status updates.

I want my sons to know that they are characters in a grand epic that includes all of us. I want my sons to learn and remember the best tales from their own lives, from their parents' lives, from their grandparents' lives. I want them to learn the stories from their great grandmother's life. But this means I would do well to learn them first, before her final chapter closes. It's time to look my grandmother in the eye—the one that was swollen and black and blue—and ask her to tell me a story.


Erika said...

Love. Thank you Hannah for this! I love hearing these stories, especially of family.

Bree said...

I am glad that you are taking the time to learn more about your Grandmother's history. Wise words for all of us.

Ian Barclay said...

This really hits close to home for me. My grandma was my only close grandparent: all the others either lived too far away and/or died when I was too young to remember. She had a very interesting life (so it was said) and one of her major goals towards the end of her life was to write a book about it. She always wanted to sit down and write it but could never gather the motivation to do it. My parents were aware of this, of course, and when I was in middle school or so they bought her a word processor to help make it easier to produce a story. She was excited for the gift at the time but still never seemed to get around to it. Then a few years later it seemed like my parents figured out nothing was going to happen with the word processor so they got her a tape recorder and a bunch of blank tapes to help her record her recollections for synthesis into a book. Once again it was well received but went unused for a while. Meanwhile I was working a very difficult job (just post college) that left me exhausted every day and not usually feeling up to the 1 hour drive (and back) to go see her. I spent as much time with Grandma as I felt I could, at the time, but it didn't really occur to me then that I might try to help her with her book. I really wish I had devoted more time to her: it would have been difficult but not impossible. A couple years later her health really declined and she had trouble remembering anything.

To this day I regret that I could have spent more time with my grandma and I will always wish I could read her book that was never produced. And who knows what valuable things I might have learned along the way. My grandma passed about five years ago at 93. She was a fabulous person and was really the most wonderful grandmother in every respect.

I am so glad you are spending as much time as possible with your grandmother and I thank you for sharing these stories.

Stephanie said...

That's funny; this is what I have been thinking about with my grandparents, who are only in their 70s. They helped my mom raise me, so I'm very close to them, but my interaction with them is always me-centered. "Tell me about when I was a baby. Tell me about when I was a toddler. Tell me about when I was a preschooler." Those are the stories I ask for, because they are the ones absent from my memory, but more and more lately I want to unearth the stories of their own lives. Only I wish I could do more service to their stories than simply listening.

Emma Sheffield said...

Lovely post thank you. I used to sleep at my nannas a lot, and every night I would beg for all her stories. These days if my six year old daughter can't sleep she sneaks into bed with me and asks for nanna's stories so I am rememberring them all as I retell them to her, it is amazing passing them all on and that my daughter is just as eager to hear them as I was. A very precious treasure x

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