Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Power of the Story

by Jamie Freveletti

In all the furor over e-books, kindle downloads, and dire predictions about the “death” of books, one significant point is lost.

The power of the story.

You know it. It’s when you sit on a lovely summer evening, with the flame torches firing and the lightening bugs flashing and you and some family members discuss the stories of generations past. Depending on the family, these stories are either embellished facts about a time and era that seemed tinged with rose-- or painted black. The latter is quite a bit more interesting, and harder to pry out of the older generation, although I’ve found that a glass of wine goes a long way to loosen tongues. You sit and listen and ask questions and even your children stop playing video games to gather around the table and hear what’s being said. Everyone wants to know what happened in the family all those years ago.

I have a term for versions of family stories that are altered to make the family appear less dysfunctional than it really is. I call these stories “the official” story. Whenever I hear someone say, “Aunt So-and-So never really participated in the family after the war,” I always ask,

“So what’s the ‘official’ story on that one?”

It’s usually, “She was crazy,” or “She didn’t get along with anyone.”

This, I’ve found, is often code for “she told the truth and it was ugly and no one really wanted to hear it.”

When you get the ‘official’ story, pour the wine and start asking some key questions. It’s best to start with, “Well, they’re all gone now, so it doesn’t hurt to tell what actually happened.” Even the most optimistic and sunny of your extended family will open up after that suggestion.

There are, though, family members that always tell the real stories. Rather than say, “what a wonderful man Uncle Johnny was,” these relatives will say, “He was a royal ass#@≤, and probably crazy to boot. He once picked up the turkey and threw it against the wall because it was overcooked. This, mind you, during the Depression, when turkey was fabulously expensive and no one could afford it.”

As a writer, these are the stories that I love to hear. Call me sick, but hearing about how saintly Aunt Rose was doesn’t interest me in the least. “That woman went to church everyday,” (not an unusual occurrence in either an Italian or Irish family, which is the combination I inherited), does nothing to further the family history. I always ask, “Why did Rose go to church every morning?” And then I hear Aunt Rose’s story–her sister had Downs Syndrome and she prayed for God to protect her. Still sweet, but gives Rose a motivation for all that praying that puts her life into perspective.

Here’s another thing I’ve noticed about families, mine and just about everyone else’s that I’ve been able to quiz on the subject–everyone has a family member that dropped out. Just disappeared. Poof! One day they were there, the next, gone.

This fascinates me. I've asked friends, family members, (both my Irish and Italian sides have at least one) and neighbors. When quizzed they all have a story about a member of the family that vanished, and no one knows what happened. Sometimes the disappearance is ominous–one is believed to have been taken to a Russian prisoner of war camp in Siberia and died there, and some just interesting-an Irish relative who went West during the Gold Rush and was never seen again. And I wonder, did he strike gold? Become fabulously wealthy? Or did he die in a mining town fighting over a claim?

When these somewhat magical evenings occur I’m always struck by the way the audience around the speaker is silent, listening with rapt attention. I look around the table, with the nearly empty wine bottles and remnants of dessert and coffee, and I know that no matter what happens in the future, stories are here to stay.


Dana King said...

Great post, reminding me of a true story in my own family.

My father's Uncle Benjamin died, and the family had gathered at my grandmother's house after the funeral. Everyone just sat around, not much to say, until someone noted it was sad, here Uncle Benjamin was dead (he was NEVER called Ben), and no one had anything to say.

My father, who is named after the deceased, then said, "Well, you know, Uncle Benjamin was a son of a bitch."

That got people talking about what an SOB he was, and the mourning function could proceed apace.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Dana-laughed at that one. Your father sounds like my kinda guy (and a lot like my Dad, who also tells it like it is). :):)

Libby Hellmann said...

When I first told my parents I was thinking about moving from DC to Chicago, my father got very quiet. I couldnt understand why. Bit by bit it came out that his mother had left his father, and run off to Chicago with another man. That secret had been tightly held for over 50 years. I was nearlly 30 before I heard it.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Libby! What a story! Amazing what families hug to their chests, isn't it?

Michael Dymmoch said...

Fabulous post, Jamie.