“Your mom took me to my friend’s funeral in Minneapolis today,” Grandma said nonchalantly while spitting a cherry pit into her perfectly manicured fingers. “She started crying in the middle of it. She was thinking of me, I would suppose. I mean, she didn’t know the lady who had died.” She glanced off into the distance for a split second before turning to look me straight in the eyes. “That’s why we’ve got to get to work, honey,” she laughed. “Where’s that little iThing you record me on?”
As we recorded the second hour of fodder for her memoir (I love that she’s always referred to the project as a personal “memoir” and never the more straightforward and structured genre of “autobiography”), I began to think about how we choose to represent ourselves, our lives, through narrative. Like it or not, we are defined by the stories we tell and those that are told about us.
Of course, there are some stories we would rather not remember… like the ones my parents bring up at family gatherings with an annoying sparkle in their eyes, the ones that elicit a hand- across- the- throat gesture and a terse “okay, moving on” from me, even at age 31. Then there are other stories we perpetuate ourselves, often times the ones that make us seem grander, quirkier, more sophisticated or more humorous than we really are (or were).
One aspect of working with Grandma that has been particularly striking is her “full-throttle” approach to storytelling. It’s no holds barred; the good, the bad, and the hilarious spill out of her mouth effortlessly, even when I can tell she’s getting tired. Whether she realizes it or not, she’s defining herself as fully and completely as possible, and it’s amazing to witness. Her recordings are peppered with stories of success (told in a very straightforward, non- glorified manner), hard work, and deliberate choices to help others (including many good deeds she rarely admits to having done).
There are also stories like this one, that both evoke a bygone era and round out her life’s narrative. These are the moments that are especially rich.
“Have I told you the story about the American Legion award?”
“Ummm, I can’t remember.”
“Well, I was slated to receive the American Legion award, given to one graduating senior per year. One girl and one boy. My parents were so proud of me. Boy, did I mess that one up.”
“Well, I was caught smoking in the girls locker room. Not many people had access to cigarettes in those days because of the war and rations. But, since I worked at the drug store, I could get as many packs as I wanted. All I had to do was put my name on a slip of paper in the cash register drawer and they would count them up at the end of the week and take the money out of my paycheck. My friends and I loved smoking. That’s before we knew it could kill ya’.” [laugh]
“Anyways, it was after the school play and we had it all worked out. I told my friends to talk to absolutely everybody, all the parents and all the teachers who would have wanted to congratulate us, before coming back down to the locker room. Well, the gym teacher, Ms. Woods –who I liked a whole lot– was on to us. She knocked on the locker room door and said she wanted to congratulate us in person, that she hadn’t talked to all of us. My friends sent me to the door, because she liked me real well– she thought I should go to the U of M and become a cheerleader. Anyways, as soon as I opened the door, she knew. She reported us to the principal and the next Monday 3 out of the 4 of us admitted to smoking in the locker room that night. The one who lied ended up getting the award that they, you know, revoked from me. I was so angry about that. I don’t think I ever forgave her for that. My parents were so disappointed. They were really involved with the Legion. That’s how that went… can we take a quick break now?”
I was in high school when I first heard this story, and she told it just like that. There was no moralizing, no trying to justify what she had done and no overt warning —just straightforward “cause and effect.” I remember loving the story the first time I heard it. I identified with her, the “good girl” with an experimental streak (or so I fancied myself). I remember being surprised by her honesty, and the fact that she didn’t end the story with “so that’s why you shouldn’t smoke” or something condescending like that. That just wasn’t her style. I also loved that she admitted to being really pissed (perhaps still) at the other girl, the liar.
The narrative was–and still is– so vivid, so simple, and I understood much more about my Grandma by the way she chose (and still chooses) to tell it. Does it make her look especially good? Yes and no– it was obvious by the fact that she had been given the award that she was an exemplary student and young citizen who made a choice and suffered the consequences (both not getting the award and of feeling resentful toward the liar, which may have bothered her as much as not getting the award). Does it make her look human and honest? Absolutely. And let’s face it– from a narrative perspective, who really wants to read about the “good girl” all the time anyways.