Telling our stories is a large percentage of what we do when we return home.
That tidbit of wisdom comes from author Seamas O’Reilly in his memoir Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?
He was five nearly six when his mammy died from breast cancer, leaving behind 11, yep. 11 grieving children.
Too young to understand the gravity or the permanence of the death of his mum, Seamus greeted the throngs of people who came to the house in Donegal with those very words: Did ye hear Mammy died? It was the news of the week for the young boy, much like announcing, Did ye hear Messi finally helped win the World Cup?
This is the season where families are gathering the world over to celebrate the birth of Christ, or the return of light to a darkened world, or just to celebrate an opportunity to get together, which won’t happen for many until another year or ten have passed.
Years ago, when working on my own family memoir, I had a veteran ask me point-blank: Do you really want to know the stories of your dad?
I knew what he was asking: Did I want to know the troubling stories of my dad? Wouldn’t it be much better to live with this idolized version that children who lose parents at a young age tend to create?
Uh. No. I agree with Seamus on this matter. “I delighted more in hearing the scant few negative stories I could wring out of those who knew Mammy best,” Seamus writes.
Every good storyteller knows that in order to make a character believable one must reveal their flaws as well as their more saintly qualities. A one-dimensional character of goodness is more annoying than anything and simply not relatable. That’s why we love the story of Jesus getting mad with the bloodthirsty moneygrubbers in the house of worship. Or the idea of Jesus hanging out with prostitutes and drunkards. We can relate to that character in ways we never could relate to the fellow feeding five thousand with a loaf of bread.
Stories are why we love family gatherings so much. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Doug have stories about my dad that I would never know except for their retelling them. Their stories as siblings help resurrect my dad, raise him up from a Flat Stanley status into a full bodied flesh and blood being.
They do that not only for my dad but also for my Granny and Pap, too, and so many other family members I never knew or knew very little about.
I remember so very little about the gifts given or received over the years but I can recall with vivid detail the last Christmas night I spent with my own mother ten years ago. I can tell you what she was wearing, how she greeted me, her last humorous remark, her last cutting remark, the bible reading at her bedside, the fever that forewarned us of her impending death, and the way she grasped our hands as she drew her last breath that December 26, 2012.
These are the legacy gifts we pass on from one person to the next, one generation to the other.
There was the time that Uncle Frank fell out of that banana tree in the backyard and drove a nail clean through his knee cap.
And the time I was mad about being sent to bed before Uncle Frank so I was doing tumbles on the top bunk and fell off, hitting my chin on the sideboard on the way down. Daddy scooped me up and put me in the car upside down, my head hanging off the front car seat, blood spewing, and drove like a maniac to Martin Army Hospital. See there? I still have the chin scars from when those doctors, chuckling with my father that I looked like I’d been in some boxing match, sewed me up.
Did you know your sweet Aunt Linda, the one who waxes on about Jesus, once got picked up for shoplifting at Nordstroms? It wasn’t her idea but even so… And yes, I do remember the time I five-fingered blue eyeshadow at the drugstore and got caught. The store manager took me in the back room and sternly told me, “You are the reason Jesus had to die on the cross.”
I still think about that man and his black-framed glasses.
And did you know that when the twins were born, Mama’s brothers came out to see for themselves, this wonder? Uncle Roy and Aunt Kathryn drove up from Medford. Uncle Carl and Aunt Blanche came from Oak Ridge. Uncle Charlie, who never had kids of his own, loved to babysit you girls, him and Aunt Joycie.
What about you Sullivan? Did you know I cried when your mama gave us that gift at Christmas announcing your impending birth? And that you are the only grandchild of mine that Grandma Shelby got to hold?
Or you, Austin? Do you remember when you fell off the couch and hit your head within the first hour of getting to our house, necessitating a trip to the ER, where sure enough you puked all over the place, confirming for all there that you did indeed have a concussion?
Or you Sawyer, the time you ran smack dab into a tree at the summer festival in Bend, and held your breath until your lips turned purple, panicking your mother and your Mimi?
Did I ever tell you about the time Vicki Hart ran down the hill at Columbus High and was yelling back over her shoulder at me, so that she didn’t see that towering pine she ran into that knocked her on her arse, sending us both into fits of laughter that caused me to pee myself, evoking even more laughter?
Or the time it snowed in Columbus, Georgia, and we all walked over to Daddy and Mama Burke’s house on Johnson Avenue and spent the afternoon playing in the first snowfall of our lives? Or maybe Lynn drove us? It was so long ago. I think Lynn drove us in her family’s station wagon. Was it blue? She was a good driver. She’s always been the most responsible of us all.
Repeated & Repeated.
Stories hold the power to resurrect a person, to bring loved ones to life in all their glory and all their flaws.
Tell them with abandon.
Repeat them often.
Wince, if you must.
But tell the stories of that time when….
Then create a story worth retelling so that the children and grandchildren will have stories of their own to tell of that time…. it was so cold we couldn’t go anywhere and the electricity went out so we had to spend all day under the covers trying to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures and could only eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches for Christmas Dinner.
Yeah, that was the best Christmas ever.
Merry Christmas y’all.
Who still has those jean jackets Grandma Shelby made? I hear they are back in style.