Finally reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which, if you don’t know it, is a writer-book that starts off by advising writers to dig into their pasts.
For some reason it struck me this morning that, although both sides of my parents’ families gossip and definitely have a few legendary stories, neither side really shares stories as a matter of course. Mom did a bunch of work trying to put various photo, album, and video projects together for both sides, but there’s a difference between a project where you try to preserve photographs with a few names at the bottom, or a film where someone narrates what’s happening, and a tradition of telling stories.
At first I had to wonder if it was just me; I’m not around them a lot anymore, being out in Colorado and all. But then I was thinking about Chris, and I realized I had no idea of how she met Grandpa or anything like that–and Grandma Alice, I have almost zero stories about her at all. And how did my Bouzek grandparents meet? No idea. No idea about any of my relations on that side of the family that I haven’t personally met, either, with very few stories about the ones that I have. I didn’t know Grandma had sisters until I was twelve or so, when we went to a funeral.
Then I look at my writing habits: I write almost nothing about things that actually happen in my life, other than brief Facebook mentions. When I process memories or the past in writing, it comes out as fiction. And yet neither side has a fiction-story-telling tradition, either.
I wonder where that comes from, the not-having-tons-of-family-stories thing.
I think Mom and Dad met at a basketball game, rival towns and all, and flirted or argued with each other, I can’t remember which, then didn’t see each other for quite some time, but then Mom (who had already spent at least a year of high school living away from home with my Aunt Catherine, the artist) got a job cooking for the Knippling family farm one summer, and then ended up going to the same college that Dad did. Did she intentionally chase him? No idea.
Mom tells stories–I was always jealous of her as a kid for her storytelling prowess–but they’re mostly ones involving her personally, which kind of limits things. My Aunt Margie told stories, but usually when I wasn’t listening, if that makes sense–when the kids were down in the basement somewhere, Margie was upstairs telling stories. I’d catch a snippet here and there, but rarely the whole thing. For example, it was from her that I heard that Dad was sick as a baby, and they didn’t know if he’d make it. What he had, I never heard.
Is it just that I was too young or oblivious to hear most of the stories when they were getting passed around? I can totally see both sides of my family censoring themselves when kids were around: they’re not big cussers, but I can see them filtering out less-than-flattering stories, if nothing else.
It could also be that they aren’t storytellers, most of them: South Dakota isn’t conducive to it. First, the men are pressured to talk very little at all, so you’ve lost half your storytellers right there. Here’s how South Dakota man talks on the phone: Yup. Nope. It’s the woman’s job to do the gossipin’, the men’s to do the doin’. Second, the whole state’s one small town, and if you get caught telling unflattering tales about someone, well, you could get ostracized for years.
Are there skeletons in the closet? Probably. But probably not so many as all that. Probably it’s mostly just attrition and assumptions and ability and opportunity. But I do regret it. And it’s the unflattering stories that, really, I like best.