Wednesday, September 19, 2012

family stories

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress—Jack Whinery, homesteader, and his family, New Mexico, 1940.

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories...  If people
wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”          
— Anne Lamott

F A M I L Y   S T O R I E S
by Dorianne Laux

I had a boyfriend who told me stories about his family,
how an argument once ended when his father
seized a lit birthday cake in both hands
and hurled it out a second-story window. That,
I thought, was what a normal family was like: anger
sent out across the sill, landing like a gift
to decorate the sidewalk below. In mine
it was fists and direct hits to the solar plexus,
and nobody ever forgave anyone. But I believed
the people in his stories really loved one another,
even when they yelled and shoved their feet
through cabinet doors, or held a chair like a bottle
of cheap champagne, christening the wall,
rungs exploding from their holes.
I said it sounded harmless, the pomp and fury
of the passionate. He said it was a curse
being born Italian and Catholic and when he
looked from that window what he saw was the moment
rudely crushed. But all I could see was a gorgeous
three-layer cake gliding like a battered ship
down the sidewalk, the smoking candles broken, sunk
deep in the icing, a few still burning.

Poem copyright © 2000 by Dorianne Laux 

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I grew up listening to my father's stories of his childhood. He told stories about his brothers and sisters, his parents, and his maternal grandparents, of cats, dogs, horses, hard work, and occasional beatings with a broomstick. He repeated things my German-American grandfather said and then these things blended with the things he said—leaving me not entirely sure which sayings are my father's and which are my grandfather's. He took great pride in stories his maternal grandparents, Slovaks who left the Old Country (a village in the north of present day Serbia) because of conscience. They were Anabaptist pacifists who fled to avoid being conscripted into one Balkan war after another. He talked about his cousins who ran a diary farm and of one Greek uncle who was so worldly he owned a pool hall. He painted a detailed image of the Ohio he grew up in—of barns and greenhouses, rainstorms and lightening bugs, church services in Slovak or Serbian, Goodyear plants and how to make explosives from fertilizer. On the few occasions that we visited Ohio, I mentally compared these stories to the relatives we met and the landscape we passed. And while my father clearly put his own pessimistic spin on events, he'd done a decent job of painting the emotional and physical landscape of his childhood world.

My mother's stories of her childhood were even more intriguing than my father's—of my grandfather who lived in a teepee with my grandmother and four children, working as a logger on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. There was a photo of him with a bobcat he'd killed, my mother and uncle flanking a dead cat larger than themselves. There was stories of long walks to school in the snow and of a house that burned down. My grandfather had been in the Navy in WWII and had been in Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. And then there where photos of my grandmother—always in a smart dress with lipstick and her hair done. How? I wondered even as a child, with four children in a teepee? However, my mother's stories were far patchier than my father's: she didn't give a summary of each of her siblings faults or what her father had done when she was naughty or what she thought of each and every thing, person, or idea she'd encountered. My grandparents' glossy wild west exterior hid something much sadder: they divorced when my mother was still young and the snippets I gleaned about my mother's life afterward were disturbing to my young mind. She lived with my grandmother—who seemed to move often, had a string of different husbands or boyfriends, consequently had more children, and worked as a bartender a good part of the time. Growing up I had little contact with my mother's family, to me they seemed more like fictional people from some book we'd read than my flesh-and-blood relatives.

Lately my son has begun to ask questions about when I was little and I find myself describing my childhood in Portland, Oregon to him. But my husband's childhood—which is equally part of my children's story—baffles me. From quite early in our relationship I peppered him with questions about his family and growing up in Hawaii. When his answers left me more confused, as they often did, I asked more questions: every question I could think of, poked in every corner, opened all the closets and all the boxes in the closets. I was, and still am, rather unrelenting in my attempt to make sense of his stories.

The thing is, I find such comfort in my own stories. Not just comfort, strength. When I am spent I reach back and sense the movement of generations through me. Just as my father before me, I take pride in my great-grandparents who immigrated to the United States for reasons of conscience. I take pleasure in the things that have been passed onto me, and in passing them on. I find reassurance in the physical landscape of my childhood, but also the physical landscape of my father's childhood. And, to a somewhat lesser degree, my mother's childhood home in Montana.

The stories we tell give our inner world shape and heft; the truer the story, the more space and weight it holds. The more honorable and courageous the story, the more strength it lends. As Annie Dillard said, "what we choose to do with our days is what we choose to do with our lives." I take it further: what we do with our days is what we do with the lives of our children and grandchildren. We lend strength to them by choosing honorable friends and professions, by cultivating honest lives and living with dignity. Every choice made for our own good is a choice, ultimately, for their good. This doesn't mean that our stories, and choices, all have to be perfectly "good." Stories of mistakes made, mischief, and overcoming great odds are powerful and life-giving. Our children and grandchildren will live lives far beyond our reach, but we can give them the gift of strength with our stories.

p o e t r y   w e d n e s d a y  }


Martha said...

What a neat photo...
I gather that you do not know those people. Reading about your father, in Ohio, reminds me of myself...we are here, church service in Slavonic (Old Russian) and English, though. And my sister is moving to Portland, Oregon in 2 weeks. We have lots of great stories that have been told to me and I tell to my children. ♥

Julia said...

The photo is pretty incredible. Their faces are so stoic and yet totally transparent, betraying everything.

This poem is both sad and funny. I don't know what to do with families who keep all the anger pushed down and behave courteously to one another 100% of the time. That is more scary than hurtling cakes out of windows.

Your family is incredibly colorful on both sides. I know you've told me snippets of all of this, but I liked reading about it here in a more linear, detailed description, because it really is quite a jumble of facts. But most of all, I like this line: "I take it further: what we do with our days is what we do with the lives of our children and grandchildren." I so agree.

Manuela said...

I love this description of your family. It inspires me to write down more about my background.
This photo is so different from a family photo people would take nowadays. No smiles, no joy. People would not hang this on on their wall.
I find this so much more interesting though and beautiful. Their faces express so much: hard work, commitment, suffering, strength, innocence, simplicity, and honesty.