Unfinished Family Stories

MY grandfather started the story with the line, "Run, stupid!" He was quoting me.

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.

There were some times, however, whentelling stories had effects other than those that we planned. Like many families during the `50s and `60s, ours could weave in among personal stories some tales that were more epic - about civil-rights protests, the draft and Vietnam, student unrest. When aunts, uncles, and cousins came together on a Sunday afternoon, it was never enough for this family of storytellers and story collectors simply to rehash the morning news. We'd bring out carefully chosen samplings fro m our own experience - evidence we felt more certain of than any statistic. With these tales we hoped to win the others to our view, or at least to withstand a counterstory.

One bit of personal documentation, offered by an aunt when we were talking about civil-rights demonstrations, stayed with me over the years. For a long time I remembered what she said only because there was a simple immediacy about the image she created. But now I have another reason to keep hers among my collection of family lore. It has taught me about an important kind of family tale I hadn't appreciated before.

These aren't the neat little yarns we loved to tell on each other because of the punchlines, or what I think of as huglines. These are the unfinished stories, family works-in-progress. If you stop short and look at any one fragment, you may be disappointed, judge wrongly or with a harshness that blinds. But if you wait for more, you may see what is taking shape - people working to keep on building up the substance of loving stories when so much seems bent on tearing down. These sagas are no less precious

to me because they pass through shadows or because many of their dramas are still waiting for the resolution that will become another beginning.

When I first heard my aunt's anecdote, I was unable to give it a context. As strange as this seems to me now with hindsight, I didn't really grasp what was going on around me in Memphis in those years. In other cities, there had been far more violent resistance to being stirred from the drugged sleep of segregated lives. In my family, attitudes toward racial questions had not hardened into hate. But the struggle for civil rights was shaking foundations. The process of sorting out the private meaning of p ublic stories sent tremors through the family.

So on that Sunday afternoon 30 years ago, in a protest against civil-rights protests, my aunt documented her despair with something she knew about - with a story. She told of a woman who worked as a domestic. The woman said she needed to leave work early because she was going downtown to "bump white people."

A year or two ago I spent some time in Memphis with this same aunt. She let me read some of my cousin's letters from Jerusalem. A minister, he had first traveled there for a sabbatical. But his interest and activism had grown so that his church appointed him to a committee working for Middle East peace.

My uncle interrupted to remind us of something that had happened before my cousin went into the ministry. He and my uncle were in Florida spear fishing, standing in the water at night, shining a light into the sea. They sighted some sting rays, so they quickly returned to shore. After they felt sure the rays had cleared out, my cousin waded into the water, pulling a boat on a tow rope. The boat slid too close to him and gave his a surprise shove from behind. "He must have jumped two feet in the air," my uncle chuckled.

My uncle's tale was told in the spirit of my grandfather's stories, a gentle nudge to the ribs. But perhaps he also meant to make a point about peacemakers, about fear and where it must first be stopped.

When my aunt got the floor again, she began to talk about her church in downtown Memphis and about their sister congregation, an African-American church. She told me how much their churches had been learning from coming together, and how much she had learned.

There is still a long way to go, she acknowledged, but these are beginnings. Then she talked about her next-door neighbor who had come by just a few days before to see if things were OK with them. He hadn't seen my uncle in the yard as he usually did. "Just the nicest neighbor you could ask for," she said of this man of African-American descent.

One story ends in revelations; others await resolution. The point is less the punchline and more the fact that we go on collecting stories, that we still tell these tales and details. They are our medium of exchange. They are one important shape love takes among us. And this is what finishes our unfinished stories.

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