Tuesday, November 27, 2007

TELLING STORIES

Whenever I was being a particularly unendearing adolescent, my mother would shake her head and warn that I was "just like Aunt Harriet," who was of course Dad's sister, not Mother's. Harriet's sin, according to the Book of Esther (i.e. my mother Esther), was "too much independence."

I couldn't see all that much independence: Harriet lived at home till she married,then after Grandma's death, she took care of Grandpa, who was blind. She had a job, true, but during the Depression, so did everyone who could get one. I doubt if she ever traveled further than the big amusement park at Rocky Glen nine miles south of Scranton. She didn't sound like Amelia Earhart to me.

Over the years, Mother spelled out Harriet's stubbornness in the same crisp sentence:

"The doctor told her not to have a baby, but she went ahead anyway, and the baby died, and she died!" That's where too much independence took you.

It was decades before I began to question that clear-cut indictment. It seemed to be pure fact: A and B happened, then C and D happened because of B. Pretty clear logic, right? No, but pretty typical story-telling.

Ever since our days as cave-dwellers, men and women have not only told stories but hungered for them. Cherished them. Told and retold them. Enriched them. Some mean old SOB from the next valley over became a legendary bad guy, and before long, a monster, a Grendel,and the story-teller became--guess who? Beowulf.

So typical is it for human beings to elaborate stories beyond the truth that the word "story" itself can mean "a lie." In the movie True Grit, young Mattie Ross angrily responds to another's accusation: "That's a big story!" A few years back, a well-known religious leader achieved a considerable reputation for his lively sermons, which were full of his personal adventures as a major league baseball player and later as a World War II infantryman, survivor of many bloody battles. When inquisitive reporters revealed that in reality he had been neither a big-time baseball pitcher nor a magically protected warrior, the man's followers were shocked. Perhaps they shouldn't have been. The preacher defended his tales, denying dishonesty, claiming only that he had "put history in finer packages."

That's all my mother was doing, tying up a package that might have more impact on her hard-headed daughter than the loose facts. I found a few of those facts (long after my cantankerous adolescence), checking through available records. It was certainly true that Harriet had been ill (with rheumatic fever) as a teen-ager. Perhaps a doctor had advised her against having children, though when this advice was given we don't know: at the time she was sick? At the time she married? Anyway, a year or so after marrying Roy Jones, she did have a baby daughter. And the baby did die--at six months of age, from some unspecified illness of infancy. And Harriet herself did die--five years after her daughter, from a malady unrelated to childbirth. You see? A much less dramatic story than the one Esther told.

Packaging the story for an audience, or even for ourselves alone, seems to be etched
on our DNA. I've been wondering the last few days how much I've done of that, because like my mother, my father, and one of my two brothers, I have the story- telling gene. Can't help myself. Sgt. Joe Friday, on the old TV show Dragnet, would plead for "Just the facts, ma'am." Sorry, Joe.

3 comments:

wordsfromhome said...

I find your posts refreshing and entertaining. Thank you for sharing them.

Dr. Terri L. Miller said...

Your words are a pleasant respite in a world of verbal cacophony.

Deirdre said...

But Elouise,
As a folklorist, it doesn't matter whether the story is true or not -- it's the value(s) that are artfully transmitted and communicated that are important.
And you are one of my favorite artful communicators!!
So glad I found your posts!
Deirdre