Friday, June 01, 2007

 

In Which We Pray for the Stories...


So, as if the last month wasn't bad enough, my aunt Barbara, my favorite aunt and my Dad's older sister, is in the hospital, fighting for her life. A fight that her doctors, apparently, do not believe she will win.

I knew she'd been sick. When I went home to New Hampshire last month, I knew aunt Barbara had been suffering some kind of viral infection that was causing her lungs to fill with fluid. It wasn't pneumonia, but it might as well have been. I saw her the Wednesday before my parents' funeral, when my brother and I had arranged for our aunts and uncles to view the bodies. We had already decided to make it a closed-coffin service, so this was the one chance close family would have to see my parents before their cremation.

Aunt Barbara, now pushing 70, has always been a spry gal, so it pained me to walk into the funeral home that day and see her so diminished. She was sitting, hunched over on a chair near the coffins, her nose and mouth covered by a portable oxygen mask. She couldn't say more than a few words at a time, but from what she did say, I gathered that this moment was going to be the funeral, as far as she was concerned. She was far too exhausted to be able to attend the formal viewing, let alone make the trip up to the cemetery on that blustery May Friday, she informed us apologetically. My brother and I were the first to insist she stay home and not to worry. I had promised to call her later the following week and to stop by and say hello before I flew back home.

But the morning of the flight, after no one answered the phone at her house, I drove over and met my uncle David in the driveway, on his way out. The night before, aunt Barbara had been struggling to breathe even with the benefit of supplementary oxygen, so they finally took her to the hospital, where she was promptly placed in intensive care. She was there for a week, then they moved her out to a regular hospital bed. And it was there, about three days ago, that she eventually did catch pneumonia. As we speak, she's probably in surgery, as the doctors attempt to drain fluid from her lungs. But she's been laboring with this for over a month now and they are worried that her heart will fail before her lungs do.

Uncle David, ever the pragmatist, related all this to my brother the other day, who called with the news that aunt Barbara was dying and the further instructions that I should not trouble myself to attend the funeral. David felt it would be too much for me and my family, and that Barbara would understand. But, you know, she's not quite dead yet, so I'm praying for her rather than thinking about travel arrangements to her funeral.

I have to say that lately, for me, prayer has a way of segueing from fervent entreaties to the Lord into a kind of reminiscence about the people I'm praying for, if I know them. Aunt Barbara looms large in my memories, and I have always seen her as having a special connection with my Dad. Of the four siblings my grandparents produced, my Dad and aunt Barbara were the closest, no doubt because they had so much in common, not the least of which being their great reverence for storytelling as a way of passing on history, especially family history.

To spend an evening with my dad and Barbara as we walked around the lake in our little town, to listen to them hold forth on matters great and small...well, it was something special. Being with either one of them was like getting a master class in storytelling. But to listen to the two of them together, each filling in details of a tale, adding shadings to it that the other could not, was like watching great painters collaborating on a masterpiece. But they were masterpieces of the mundane. My dad and aunt had a gift for taking small details of everyday life and talking about them in ways that both magnified and glorified the events, made them part of the greater whole.

Once, while walking around the lake, we came to a small patch of turf on the side of the road--a nondescript strip of grass and two trees, separating the country road from the lake itself. There was no beach here and it was too small to be useful as a boat ramp. I remember stopping once and remarking--because I was 13 and knew everything--on what a useless and forgettable scrap of land this was.

Dad and aunt Barbara both looked at each other and then began talking at once, not speaking over one another, but each offering their own line in the story, a story that was really several stories, narrative mingled with hints of other great stories and side conversations that contained their own plot twists that surprised the tellers as much as the listeners.

"Oh hell--"

"--this is a special piece of property, donchaknow?"

"Ayuh, this is where they used to have a little turnout back in the day, an overlook--"

"--back before most of it eroded away--"

"--and right where you're standing, MM, why that's where they had a signpost identifying the lake--"

"--there's a picture of your grandmother standing next to it when she was a young woman."

"Who has that picture now?"

"Oh, it's up in the attic of the Homestead now, I guess. You know they hoarded most of those photos and know they're probably--"

"--ruined, ayuh. Leaks and birdshit and I don't know what up in them rafters."

"Whatever happened to that sign, anyhow?"

"Oh, they used to have em on all the lakes, but they was just made of wood and they all rotted away. Except this one."

"Oh?"

"Ayuh. Might be I know someone who was driving his Studebaker along here one night and drove off this patch and right into the goddamn lake--"

"You mean Stuart--"

"--ayuh. Only one in town with a Studebaker, weren't he? Clipped the sign and that tree right there--see how it's skewed?--and right into the drink. Car's still down there in the muck I guess."

"I memba the car. We used to row over to it and fish near it. But the sign--?"

"Well, Stu come wandering into the store just before closing, wet as a sponge holding up his soggy trousers in one hand and the sign in the other. Muckled right onto it when he swum out through the window. Guess he never let it go. Can you see him walking all the way down the New London road holding his pants and that sign? Folks musta thought he was hitching."

"Cawse, old Stuart weren't no Charles Atlas. Between the booze and the shock of the cold water and the walk he was some tired--"

"--I guess the hell, because no sooner did he tell us what happened than he pitched right over dead."

"No! I didn't know that was when it happened!"

"Ayuh. Face first into the candy rack. Red Hots and Junior Mints scattered from hell to breakfast. Well, there we were, stuck at closing time with a body on the floor. David called over to the sheriff, but he weren't to home. Turned out he was up to Lebanon chasing the Maple Syrup Bandit and didn't come back til next day. And there weren't no paramedics back then. Even if there was, it wouldna helped Stuart. He was deader 'n dead. So there we were, body on aisle 3. And ol' Stuart didn't have no kin around, so David and I put him up for the night."

(And here there might be a pregnant pause to allow the audience a moment of dawning realization. Or horror.)

"You didn't--"

"Oh, ayuh. David got some burlap bags from the back and we wrapped old Stuart up and carted him into the walk-in. Laid ol' Stuart out on some cases of Moxie and White Rock soda."

"Sweet Jesus!"

"Well, hell, why not? Stu, he didn't mind none. Only one who got het up about it was Arnold Putney, the milkman, who had the key to the store and would let himself in to deliver milk in the morning. When he wheeled a few crates in that morning I guess he squawked some. Said we shoulda left a note on the door of the walk-in--'Dear Arnold, watch out for the corpse on the soda pop!'"

"Today they'd have that on the CBS News--"

"--but back then, hell, it was a public service."

"As for the sign, well, David hung it on the wall inside the walk-in. When we sold the store, he left it. Probably still in there, for all I know. You could go and look for it, I guess."

And then we'd walk on, silent for a time, some of us rendered thoughtful, ruminating even then about what a special gift it was, to see stories in even the most nondescript and derelict of places like that patch of ground by the lake.

As I got older, I would long for those moments when my aunt would come over, when she and my dad would fuel one another's considerable talent for weaving a tale. The last time I saw them together was when my family went to Thanksgiving in New Hampshire some years back, when Thomas was a toddler. Seeing the newest generation of the family put both my Dad and my aunt in a more reflective frame of mind, I think, because they got to telling the old stories, tales handed down to them from their elders. Stories about the history of the town where they'd been raised, how our family came to live there in the 1630s. Stories of the town's boom times when it was home to several mica mines (which was used for the windows of stoves and furnaces in the 1800s). Stories about the more colorful people and places of the region.

"How do you remember so much?" I asked, a well-worn question I'd posed for years.

Aunt Barbara and my Dad smiled simultaneously.

"Oh hell, we don't remember so much," aunt Barbara answered. "In fact, we remember just a smidge compared to the great storytellers from when we were kids. I remember my Grammy--your great-grandmother, MM--telling stories that were so much better than anything we could remember." Great-Grammy had passed away earlier in the year. Aunt Barbara looked at my dad. "Memba the one she told about her mother?"

Dad nodded. "Ayuh. How she stood at the gate and watched her older brother and cousins march off to war--"

"--the Civil War, mind you--"

"--singing We Are Coming, Father Abraham.' She never saw them again, not a one."

We were all silent for a moment, thinking of Great-Grammy, watching Thomas playing on the floor.

"It's a helluva thing to be considered the storyteller in your family, when you yourself don't remember half the tales that the real storytellers knew," aunt Barbara said.

"That's the goddamn truth," my Dad nodded, then looked at me. "Oh, you can smirk all you want, Mistah Man, because you think we know all the stories there are. But we've got the backstage view and we know better."

Aunt Barbara nodded. "Someday it'll be your turn, and you'll see for yourself."

And now, as my Dad lies dead and buried, as my aunt lingers in a hospital bed somewhere in New Hampshire, I finally understand what they meant.

So I prayed for the life of the stories my aunt has yet to tell. I can't bear the thought of their loss, any more than I can stomach the idea that it might soon fall to me to remember the family stories. It's certainly not a job I deserve. And right now, it's definitely not a job I want.

All I want is for my aunt to be well again.


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
You've had a hellava ride this year, MM. I'm so sorry to hear that it hasn't gotten any smoother. Aunt Barbara is in my thoughts.

No wonder you're such a good writer—storytelling is in your blood. You learned it from the best.
 
This post is so apropos today. I just had my grade 8s read an article about storytelling, and great storytellers. They all thought that storytelling is boring, and useless. If only they could appreciate real storytelling . . .
 
My heart really goes out to you and your loved ones. I hope that your Aunt can recover.
 
More beautiful storytelling from you MM. The love that shines through when you tell stories about your family is what makes you such a joy to read. Even when you do bring tears to my eyes.

My thoughts are with Aunt Barbara and your family.
 
Wishing you and your family well...my grandmother used to tell me stories that gave me much more insight and history than a family tree ever would. Those that have this in their lives are fortunate indeed. Hope all is well.
 
Dontcha know, Mister Man, that your Aunt Barbara and Dad had to wing the storytelling just like you are gonna have to eventually. Filling in the blanks is part of the art of storytelling...
As much as I love your tales, all I want right now for you is for your Aunt Barbara to get well as well.
 
Damn MM, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

You've inherited quite a legacy and, in this readers eyes, you do it justice.
 
Oh, MM. *hug*
 
Best wishes to your aunt for a complete recovery, MM.
 
I was just thinking how I need to get the tape recorder out and have my grandfather tell us his tales from WWII...especially the rumor about that nurse in Hawaii...

My thoughts are with you and yours.
 
Prayers on their way to Aunt Barbara, MM.
 
Aunt Barbara is in our thoughts, prayers, and hearts tonight.

When it is your turn to be The Storyteller, you can pass on all of the old stories you heard as a child, as well as the wonderful tales about your childhood with your parents - and of course Aunt Barbara.

(((hugs)))

Thim
 
Oh, MM. 2007 is giving you a major ass-beating. I'm so sorry! You and your family will continue to be in my prayers.
 
You have your family's wonderful riches of stories to tell here - your legacy from them. And, as I know, too, there never seems to be enough time to gather them all before some are lost. (I am so very glad to have one crappy recording of my mom talking about her flying days in WWII.)

Healing wishes and my kindest thoughts to your aunt and to all your family, MM.
 
It's definitely not easy becoming an elder, I don't think it's a job anyone wants. I wish your aunt the best.
 
Thinking of your Aunt Barbara and wishing her the best.
 
I am praying for your Aunt and for your family.

What a legacy you have! You should take pride in knowing that your family stories are not lost, you have and are doing a wonderful job of sharing them. Thank you.
 
Blessings and prayers to your Aunt Barbara. She and your Dad couldn't have picked a better person to pass on the storytelling gene/torch of your family. You already do them proud. Lizardmom
 
Simply beautiful post, MM. You and your family remain in my prayers, joined now by your aunt.
 
Well, you know you've got my prayers added.

Large regret in my life: Not taping some of my Dad's tremendous stories when I had the chance. I've recreated a few of them on my blog, but the oral tellings were far superior.
 
By the way, you know I've often compared you to Twain. This entry is exquisite proof.
 
Oh, MM! I am so sorry to learn of your Aunt Barbara's illness. Thank you for sharing her and your family in your fond reminiscence.

A
 
Your aunt will be in my prayers. As your family will remain.
 
Talk about an intense year! I love hearing the stories about your family members sharing the family history...it really shines a light on just what kind of well of inspiration your writing abilities have evolved from.

Huge prayers and good vibes for your Aunt to recover. We're here for ya, MM.
 
MM,

You don't have to wait to inherit the role; you're already one of them. This blog is proof.
I hope your Aunt recovers so you can enjoy sharing the role of story teller with her.

Peace
 
All the best to your aunt; why is it that hard times seem to hit all at once?
 
MM, I've been in the Congo for the past couple of months and am only now catching up with your blog. I am so sorry. Add my name to the list of people who are sending you and your family love and support.
 
jeez. this year hasn't been a walk in the park, has it?

thinking of you, and yours...

ericka
 
it's funny - I got around to catching up with your blog today, 6/6, D-Day. I've been listening to a lot of oral histories of the Vets from that day, and thinking about my grandfather, whom I never knew.
He had been in WWII, in the Air Force before it branched out from the Navy. I have a handful of anonomous pictures of planes and boys and faraway times and places, but no stories to give these things life.

So I listen to other people's grandfathers tell their stories, and I mourn the stories I will never know, the ones that have been lost to time...
- K.
 
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