Remember the Time …..? By Robin Sydney Wallace
Many years ago, I had a friend who, whenever I would start to talk or tell a story, would interrupt me before I got through the first sentence and say, “Wait a minute, Robin. You forgot to say which way the wind was blowing.”
It sounds a little bit like a dig about me being long-winded—which, of course, I am. But, she meant it as a compliment, that I knew how to tell a story with vivid detail and description. From time to time, someone will make a similar observation about me, and I’m always thrilled to hear it. After all, I make my living as a writer. Imagine if I couldn’t tell a story!
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories this week because most of my stories that entertain people so much involve my colorful relatives and somewhat unorthodox childhood—and this week, we lost one of those central characters, pivotal to the plot of who we all are. He was my uncle, someone I adored as a child, and his death prompted the re-telling of stories, the recalling and comparing of memories, as the death of a loved one usually does. In my family, however, stories are who we are. We like to star in our own dramas and comedies and thrillers, but we like to tell those stories even more.
Every family has their story—in my husband’s family, for example, it is an immigrant story of hardship and hard work, of sticking together through tough times, and making sure to be together to celebrate the good times, in order to succeed at accomplishing the American dream. For my family, there is no over-riding theme or arch—just an endless, infinite collection of too-crazy-to-believe, or hysterically funny, or terribly tragic, or remarkably heroic, or simply confounding, tales about the unfathomable antics and adventures of individual people. Too many characters and too much personality squeezed into too few generations. Too many square pegs—and triangles, and rectangles and hexagons—who never knew the round holes of this world even existed.
When my own father died a few years ago, my sisters and I told stories about him at the funeral—stories of his selfless generosity and devotion to us and his grandkids, of course, but also stories that reflected the fact that life could be difficult for him, that he and the world were just not a natural fit. His square edges, however, made him who he was, and to deny that part of him would be to deny why we loved him so much.
This was even truer in mourning my uncle. Of course, when we lose someone we love, we want to comfort ourselves by remembering the love and laughter and light that person brought into our lives. But human beings are flawed and fallible, and sometimes, before we can fully appreciate the brightness a person brought into our lives, we have to understand the depth of darkness from which that light had to first travel before reaching us. When we understand the distance that light had to survive in order for us to feel its warmth, the shadows fade, and its radiance is blinding. My family is full of blazing fireballs that can get lost in the coldest, most desolate darkness, and still survive to scorch you with their heat.
My father and uncle were not only the featured characters in so many great stories, but they also told great stories. On the Christmas Eve before my father died, he and I sat at opposite ends of the table while he told an outlandish—and entirely true—story of some misadventure. I knew exactly when to express disbelief, when to roll my eyes, when to feign outrage or disapproval. A few feet away, my sister knew exactly when to chime in with, “Oh, wait til you hear this part,” or “an entire bottle” or any number of bone-dry one-liners. We had better lines and timing than the average sitcom, and had everyone else laughing.
As I mourn my uncle now, as much as I am recalling all the stories I could tell about him, I am also remembering all of the stories he would tell us. You never could know which stories were true, and which were totally manufactured, but it never mattered. They were delivered with dead-on impersonations, funny voices, brilliant and perverse observations and perfect timing. He knew how to go for and get the laugh.
After my uncle’s memorial service, another uncle of mine told us a story about having to spend some time with his wife’s sisters. It was a long story, but we all sat there, rapt, laughing. The hand motions. The facial expressions. The curmudgeonly one-liners. The natural tendency to stand up and act it all out. It was a performance to rival any headlining comedian, and he did it off the cuff. In this uncle’s case, it was even funnier because he wasn’t trying to be funny.
Time has sanded off the square edges in my generation of my family. My sisters, cousins and I seem to be painfully normal and boring and have—perhaps tellingly—chosen normal and boring spouses. We are raising our kids in happy little bubbles of stability and wholesomeness, as if we didn’t know there was another way. Sure, we are carrying on the gift for gab. Any one of us can stand up and tell a tale. We have an endless font of material. But the crazy genes seem to have canceled each other out. We are not providing our own children with any good, fresh material, and I wonder, will they grow up to be able to tell stories, if they don’t have any stories to tell? Who will they be if they’re not shaped by the experiences that make for good stories?
I don’t know if there is an answer to that question. Great comedy comes from great pain, and I’m giving my children a childhood very different from my own. Their experience of love, and life, is simple and uncomplicated. But as far as my own stories, and where those stories came from, I carry with me something the priest said to me at my father’s funeral, after my sisters and I had finished speaking about my father.
“It’s a gift to have something to say,” Father Owen said. “Often at these times, there is nothing to say.”
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Robin Sydney Wallace is a journalist and writer working in the television news industry. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.