Unfinished Family Stories
MY grandfather started the story with the line, "Run, stupid!" He was quoting me.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Summer afternoons he would seek out the cool on the front porch of our Memphis home. Often a vigorous game of baseball was underway in the yard. At 10, I was the eldest of the five or six neighborhood children who plied the front yards with continuous action ranging from baseball to more complicated games of our own making.
On the day of the story, we were playing baseball, and I was running toward first base. But the runner on second stayed put. He was watching the other team's fielder, who was searching for the ball in the bushes. I could see my home run slipping away, so I gave him a little encouragement.
For best effect, Paw Paw told the story over Sunday dinner after I had become a full-fledged teenager. He closed with the embarrassing fact that I had often allowed myself four strikes while the rest of the group got the regulation limit. But I knew he was not out to embarrass me. He was just better with a story than with a hug.
I developed my own stories to tell on Paw Paw. They repaid him in terms he could accept, but there was no "what-do-I-do-now?" feeling that could intrude after a more obvious expression of affection. My favorite anecdote reminded him of my early days taking piano lessons.
Paw Paw was a music lover of refined tastes. His scratchy opera records filled the house with a strange grandeur I never truly appreciated until well after I was in college. It was Paw Paw who had paid for the piano and the piano lessons for my brother and me. Maybe that accounts for his response to one particular piece we learned during our first few lessons.
It was not Mozart or Chopin made simple, as Paw Paw might have hoped. It was a sort of American Indian-esque melody. No doubt it was intended to capitalize on young pianists' interest in television and its variations on the theme of westerns. I have to say that the left-hand part did give a very satisfying imitation of a tom-tom.
As I practiced, Paw Paw was encamped in his overstuffed chair in back of the piano bench. He was humming. Actually, to be more accurate, he was chanting - giving his version of a warrior's song.
I could usually count on his response when I told the story. There was a slight smile, a softening look about the eyes, and possibly a gentle poke to the ribs - if he was feeling particularly expressive.
The best family storytelling doesn't have to be the somber conveyance of important moments of family history. What turn out to be the most significant events may look to be the most uneventful. Yet I have come to believe that telling and retelling those small tales has allowed our family to pass along something we might not otherwise have put forward in quite so lasting a form. We have been able to show each other in just how much detail we have observed and loved one another.
One of the smallest stories was about a story. It began as a supreme effort at conciseness, knit by my mother. But to her dismay, it unraveled. While Mother could recount family adventures with the best of us, her bedtime fiction had established its own class. Almost every night for about three years when my brother and I were young, Mother would tell us some segment of an ongoing original tale - although she often borrowed characters from Uncle Remus and other sources.
One night we were late getting to bed, but we persisted in demanding our story. Mother finally relented and said, "It's going to be a very short one. Then not another word out of you! Once upon a time there was a little rabbit, and he sat on a block of ice and said, `BRRR,' and so they named him `Brrr Rabbit.' "
The bad pun, recollected in what was supposed to be tranquility, kept us awake well into the night. And it almost always produced the same response for years afterward. We only needed to say "Brrr Rabbit" with the right emphasis to produce the desired results.