Nick’s baritone voice, “I remember in the old country . . . “
Grandpa Joe, “When I was a boy we used to . . . “
Granddaughter Layla, “I remember when I was a baby . . . “
Storytellers. The silver-tongued weavers of the golden thread of memories.
Yesterday my friend Vernon asked when I planned to write a new story. He called out to me on social media, reminding me that our memories are many and should be shared. I started this blog in 2017, on which I have published several short pieces on my family history. My penchant for writing has waned; my blog fallen quiet. Vernon seemed to miss reading what I had to say.
Later that same day another friend voiced a similar sentiment. Over savory Greek dolmades and flaky spanakopites, Rocky and I talked of family stories and how they disappear, despite years of telling. We wondered whether our kids and grandkids will really appreciate their value when we are no longer around to tell them.
Rocky told of his dad, Nick, a marvelous storyteller. Nick often recounted stories of growing up in Greece and the ravages to family and country during World War II.
Rocky had heard the stories so many times during his youth that he finally asked his dad just to write them down. Rocky was young and developing new interests. He didn’t have time to hear the repeated stories. He asked his dad to keep a daily journal, writing just one story a day.
Many years later when Nick died, Rocky’s mom directed him to a closet, saying he would find something there she believed Nick intended for him. High on the top shelf he found a tightly rolled sheaf of binder paper. Rocky removed two brittle rubber bands and unrolled the nearly 300 pages. The title page read, “My Life’s Stories.”
Adrenaline rushing, Rocky trembled as he held the lasting legacy of his father. He lifted the title page and what followed shocked and saddened him.
Nick had written nothing beyond the title page. All those pages. And nothing. No stories. No history. Gone because the storyteller was gone. Gone because the boy had stopped listening. Rocky’s eyes welled up as he recounted this memory. Despair.
My deceased dad, Joe, loved to spin a tale. He took mostly accurate memories and filled in the blanks with his humor and wit and imagination. Dad was raised by his grandmother during the Great Depression and he had much to share.
I loved hearing his stories about family, specifically about my grandmother and great-grandmother. Dad’s words linked me to the ladies who helped make me.
These stories gave the history buff in me a look back in time and to personalities. To people I only knew through stories, photos, and sketchy childhood memories of my own.
My work and family competed with time for listening. But I didn’t want to miss a morsel of family heritage through my own busy inattention. I wanted always to have Dad and his colorful recollections with me.
I bought Dad a tape recorder and asked him to tell his stories to the tape. Uncomfortable with the medium and loss of someone to listen, Dad recorded just a few lack-luster stories. When he died, the untold stories died too. Sadness.
Layla is a born storyteller. She infects us with laughter as she giggles through the sharing of a memory, filling in the gaps just like her great-grandpa Joe. She is animated and engaging.
I’ve asked Layla to write down her memories, to keep those stories and adventures in a written word. She rarely does. She is nine. She prefers the spoken word. Layla doesn’t get that one day her kids or grandkids will have missed what she had to say and need her written prompts to stir their memories. Regret.
Today I listened to an interview of a close friend of recently deceased Senator John McCain. This friend described Senator McCain as funny and smart, as a grand storyteller whose words helped relieve the agony of their time as Vietnam Prisoners of War.
This interview started me thinking about what makes a great storyteller.
Nick and Dad; remarkable storytellers. But to be remarkable tellers of stories, they both needed remarkable listeners of stories.
Their stories came from deep inside, where emotion played as big a part of their storytelling as did the memory that conjured up the telling in the first place. Their art form required an audience to connect the memory of the past with the heart of the present. Layla is no different. She prefers personal interaction for her storytelling.
In 2014 Dad’s cousin Marion told me a story about their grandmother. It seems my great-grandma Laurel was married in 1903 at age sixteen to John H. She was widowed at seventeen. These were facts. But what was the untold story?
Immediately following that 2014 visit, I searched the internet and found the obituary of a similarly named John H. But no mention was made of a wife, of Laurel. And I needed to see her name attached to this man. I craved the missing connection.
I visited the Hall of Records and found a marriage certificate. Vital statistics were confirmed, but still Laurel’s story eluded me.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “What signifies knowing the names, if you know not the nature of things?”
Knowing the nature of things—I missed this; missed hearing Dad’s version of Laurel’s story; missed him sharing his knowledge of how grandma felt, what she did, where she went when her husband of exactly one year died of typhoid fever. When did she then marry the man who was my great-grandfather?
So I did in writing what Dad used to do in telling. I filled in the gaps. I set Great Grandma’s story in ink on paper. A little creative non-fiction. Shadowy facts, creatively written.
Yesterday I returned to the Hall of Records and picked up the 2014 thread of research. This time I found what I was looking for. Old microfilm divulged most of the hidden story and gave legitimacy to Laurel. These records gave her a name, validating her first marriage, turning the page to my great grandfather, and tying the story up with a pretty golden thread.
I’m grateful to Vernon and Rocky—storytellers in song, I might add—for reinforcing the ideal that we should not lose ancestral history on blank pages rolled up tight and hidden in the closet. To not lose them on forgotten bits of paper stashed in a drawer, or in dusty logbooks or faded microfilm at the Hall of Records. To not let my—our—memories slip away without first gifting them to others.
Let’s listen. Let’s tell—in voice, in written word, in song. Let’s share the stories that evoke emotion, that lift one another out of despair, sadness, and regret. Let’s allow others their chance to reminisce and laugh and become storytellers themselves.
From ancient man’s petroglyphs and pictographs; from the laps of our grandparents as they spoke to us of their past; to the Dear-diaries of our youth and the blogs of modern-day, memories are our history. Don’t let them disappear, even as we live and create new tales that become old memories.
I believe descendants will care. They will crave. They will absorb. They will become the next great storytellers who will honor “the nature of things.”
(Originally written August 29, 2018)