pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: telling family stories

the stories we tell

in a hospice room 719 miles away, a cluster of people i love sit circled round a bedside: a son, a daughter, their mother. words are few now, hours vary by breaths per minute, by doses of morphine. i am there/not there by the miles on a map between us, but my every breath is with them. vigils are kept without proximities. vigils are kept by heart. and my heart is there…

this vigil, as with most any vigil, is one syncopated by its own time and twists, all of which are beyond — far beyond — our inclinations toward clock and calendar, those false measures by which we mark things. minutes turn to hours turn to days. in the timelessness of now, i’m reminded how we set our hearts sometimes by timekeeping tools of our own making. we allow for acceleration, we slow, we pace. but really all of it is no more than device within which we pour ourselves for the comfort of the walls around us. as a species we seem to prefer to plunk ourselves in vessels rather than fling ourselves unbounded onto undulating limitless seas.

i steady myself inside this landscape of not knowing by extracting and considering the stories that emerge, that tell us who we are, who we mourn and who we aim to emulate. as is always the way, the stories we extract from lives well lived are the very fibers that will weave us back together again, in the wake of our emptiness. they’re the totems and road signs that point the way for every day thereafter. the etchings of the heart that prove inextinguishable instruction, the wisdoms and glories that keep the radiance from dimming.

here’s one of the ones i will tell from the life of a woman who from the start was always in my corner. that alone is everything (especially in a mother-in-law), but more than anything i have loved her for her goodness. her endless, endless, bottomless goodness.

in a parade of tales to tell, this one i’m forever seizing: it’s the tale of a gas-station attendant and my mother-in-law, who just two months ago was as blonde, beautiful, and fully engaged as ever. the gas-station attendant, it turns out, is an immigrant woman from a sometimes-unwelcome country, who some years back with her now-late husband bought a CITGO station in new jersey, worked the register seven days a week, long hours every day, and came to know the blonde-haired lady with the old volvo as a friend, one who never failed to deliver kindness every time she filled her tank, and carefully-wrapped gifts at christmas and easter. when the gas-station lady hadn’t seen my mother-in-law and her spiffy new Honda Fit for weeks, she tracked down the home phone and left a message, saying she missed her, and hoped all was well. my husband—who has meticulously been attending to all matters of the heart, and much else besides during these long weeks—called her back, and the woman explained that my mother-in-law had always been so kind, and over the last few weeks she’d grown more and more worried by her absence. the gas-station woman said that when her own husband had died — leaving her to run not only the register but the whole gas station on her own — my mother-in-law was right there with sympathies and kindness, and had become something of a rare american friend here in this strange new land.

to befriend the folks who pump your gas, to befriend them to the extent they notice your absence, and track you down, leave word and hope you’re well, that’s a measure of goodness worth remembering.

here’s another story that’s emerged, that tells us who she is and was in the silence and the solitude when no one was looking: in poring through the piles of papers that shrouded the desk in his old boyhood bedroom, my mother-in-law’s first-born and only son found a yellow legal pad with pages and pages of carefully enumerated names and gifts. my mother-in-law, an inveterate bargain hunter and irrepressible gift giver, spelled out her christmas lists every january, once the post-holiday sales were cleared, and her bedrooms filled with carefully chosen dollar-sale finds. when the Gap marked down winter scarves from $20 to $1 apiece, my mother-in-law bought the whole lot, and squirreled away each one for her endless christmas list. (she also never missed a new baby gift, a wedding, a graduation, or a sympathy gift, but hands down, my jewish mother-in-law’s favorite holidays were those wholly christian christmas and easter. maybe it’s no wonder she never minded the idea of a catholic daughter-in-law.) christmas 2021 was months ago enumerated, executed, and laid out in shopping bags all across the bedroom floors. all that’s left was the wrapping, a months-long ritual she usually began each october. indeed, my mother-in-law had her giving down to something of a science. a science of goodness, of calibrated, counted-out (and bargain-hunted) perpetual goodness.

it’s a goodness without measure, and she lived and breathed it every blessed day.

what stories do you tell of the ones you’ve loved most dearly? or even ones you barely knew but whose stories became the measures of your own every day?

for all these 15 years here on the chair, my mother-in-law was among its most loyal dedicated readers. she was the first to call if she liked it, and if she didn’t….well, the silence….

i tell her tales here with love. with so much love….

history: lost and found

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four of us, before there were five of us. 

i’ve been pulled into the mists and folds of history, family history, tumbling across generations and centuries, drawn back to beginnings. and what’s pummeling me more than anything is the sense of stories lost. i sift through the barest scraps of biography: birth, death, name (or, too often, too confusingly, derivation of name, not the name that will lead me to slips of paper that nail down history, as much as history can be relied upon, can be trusted to those who put ink to government forms).

it began with a wisp of a note from my brother, a short bit of digging about our kentucky roots. didn’t take long to hop to ireland, that homeland that stirs me in ancient, primal ways. my attention — despite a deadline that pounds at me by the hour — was captured. i couldn’t resist. and in the wonders of the world we live in, a few clicks away i found birth dates and days of someones’ last breaths. any time i stumbled on a document, found corroboration for hint, for approximation of fact or of timeline, i heard a faint sigh. one more story with beginning or end. soon, but not yet, i will begin to sift through those dates, search for overlappings, for patterns, for sense. connect the dots, literally. fill in what i can of the story.

i finally determined that i’m only three generations away from ireland, at least on one strand of my story. i learned, too, because i found a letter along the way, that my irish great grandpa, teddy (though officially timothy, or thaddeus, depending on the document), spoke with a brogue so thick, so old-country, he was hard to understand for those who bumped into him on the streets of paris, kentucky, where my papa was born.

on my mama’s side, i tumbled into some stroke of genealogical good fortune when my tapping around bumped into someone else’s hours and hours of archival digging, and suddenly i was looking at 16 generations — dating all the way back to 1470 in the year of our Lord, dear Lord. i was charmed, on this side of familiar affairs, to discover that besides the name barbara (which i’d always been told had a long family history), the other name spotted with alarming frequency was none other than — hold your chairs, here — Apollonia. my favorite: one Apollonia Winter, born in 1659. she must be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmama. i admit to being charmed to have an apollonia for a grandma. (although my serial and lifelong protests of my own barbed name might now be put to permanent rest, for what if they’d reached in the archival closet and pulled out the feminine nod to Apollo, variously regarded as god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, and poetry.)

by the end of the day’s digging and clicking i had a spread sheet that filled a few screens, and yet, i knew so little. while somehow i found comfort, embraced in the arms of time spread across decades, century, millennia, i was washed in a profound sense of loss — of stories lost. of moments of heroism, or plain old hearts cracked. i wondered what kept apollonia awake at night. i wondered who caught her fancy. did she know what it was to bury a child? and what of all the men i noticed, especially on the irish side, who’d buried a wife, and then started all over again (a predilection that sprang forth my very own papa). and, because it’s february, and because long ago now, my own papa died on the 10th of this month, i find myself achingly missing him all over again. only slighted comforted typing the name and the line of his mama, my dear anna mae shannon, born 1896, died february, 1954.

there was a yin to this yang, though, and it unfolded the other night, well past bedtime for my freshman in high school, the formerly named “little one” whose adventures have so filled these pull up a chair pages. he sat down for some reason, and pulled up a chair, and for a good hour or so i heard him giggling and sighing as he clicked from story to story. he was reading the bits of history i’ve left behind, the scraps i’ve put here on the table. for him. for his brother.

all along i’ve said the number one reason i write these tales from the front is so that my boys will have a record. a record of love, more than anything. i want them to be able to pore over the grains of their growing up years. i want them — and, goodness, maybe even their children’s children — to know the stories. to be able to grasp a detail or two, so it’s not lost. so that the whole of one someone’s life — and more importantly her love, her heart — isn’t washed away with my very last breath.

i’d give anything to gather up the scraps of story from long long ago.

i think of my father’s words to me, shortly before he died, one of the very last times i rested my head on his chest. we were standing in front of the refrigerator in the house where i grew up. he’d just read a love letter i’d written to him, to each one in my family. he said simply, strikingly at the time: “you have a real sense of history.” he could see what i didn’t yet know. and then he was gone from my everyday.

and that sense of history, one filled with so many blanks, it haunts me, it pulls me. it propels me to gather up stories. before they’re lost to all time.

has anyone gathered the stories at your house?

power of five. five.

and here is the fifth of our five, my forever dream come true.

any hour now

my papa and me, taking a walk.

measuring life in 8 millimeters

it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.

it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.

i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.

but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.

mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.

it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?

it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.

if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.

but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.

as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.

as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.

i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.

not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.

in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.

i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.

it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.

but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.

“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.

in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.

a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.

how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?