Family Stories, Part I

In the wake of the passing of my last remaining grandparent, I’ve been meditating a good deal on what makes a family “us,” and I’m coming more and more to believe that it is two things: a commitment to being a family, whatever “family” might turn out to be, and shared experiences, even if the sharing is one family member telling another about an experience, long afterward.

Duh, you say. 

But bear with me, here.  I’m also coming to understand that in each generation, there’s one person who serves as the repository for family stories, and apparently, in my generation, in my family, I’m that person.  Might be because I’m the oldest.  Might be because it feels a little like a responsibility, to remember and to tell and to preserve. 

But it might be because I’m a sucker for stories, too, because I am that.  I’ll be telling some family stories here on the blog from time to time. 

This is my favorite Nell story, and I think it’s my favorite because it involved just her and myself, and because it’s such a lovely example of the “teachable moment.”

When I was a child, Nell used to smoke.  She was a light smoker, as I remember, consuming no more than a handful a day, and her big house held only the faintest whiff of tobacco.  She told me once that it was because when she was young, “Everyone smoked, so of course I didn’t want to be left out.”  I didn’t question it at the time – if I’d thought of it, I would have: Did Uncle Fred smoke?  Did Big Aunt Doris?  If everyone smoked, why didn’t Pawpaw J.T.? 

Smoking, as I heard in Sunday  School, was not only bad for you but an insult to the Lord who made your body.  No one went so far as to say that smokers were bad Christians, but I once overheard someone making an objection to the inclusion of one man on the deacon board, on the grounds that the man smoked.

My mother’s cousin Hazel smoked – a lot – and a visit to her house was both exciting and faintly nauseating, because I’d get to play with the only cousins close to my age, but I’d get headaches while I was there, and come home smelling like an ashtray.

Smoking, then, was an activity that I couldn’t fit into my worldview.  Mama said it was bad, my Sunday School teacher said it was bad, and it smelled bad.  But Hazel smoked, and she loved me.  And Nell smoked, and she loved me more, and they weren’t bad. 

One Sunday afternoon, the summer I was eight, on a visit to Nell and J.T.’s house with my parents, everyone except me and Nell were out on the side porch, sipping tea and chatting and watching my sister run around on the grass.  Nell was in the kitchen, making more tea at the sink, and I was sitting at the kitchen table playing with her deck of cards: counting them, fanning them out, trying to teach myself how to shuffle and waiting for her to come play Rummy with me.  Nell had finished her cigarette, and came over to the table to crush it out in the ashtray. 

She put it down and went back to stirring the pitcher of tea.  I had a idea.

I picked up the cigarette butt and smelled it.  It was no longer lit, but a wisp of smoke still curled up from it.  It smelled like burning leaves, which it was, I realized, and her lipstick – and like – like sin, too.  With a quick glance over my shoulder at Nell’s back, I put the butt up to lips and breathed in through it the way I’d seen her and Hazel do. 

And promptly coughed my head off.

Nell spun around and regarded me without comment, her groomed eyebrows high on her forehead.  I managed to meet her eye, still coughing, tears running down my face from the effort.

Finally she pointed a long, big-knuckled forefinger at me and said, levelly, “Don’t start.” 

She took the tea out to the side porch, came back in, and sat down with me for my Rummy lesson.   Nothing more was ever said about it – I don’t think she even told my parents – and I never had the slightest desire to smoke from that point on, but great compassion for people who did.  Nell quit for the first time shortly after the incident.  She would later take up smoking again, and quit again, re-start and re-stop, finally giving it up for good twenty-five years later, after her youngest daughter’s father-in-law died of lung cancer.

There is a danger, of course, in only remembering the good stories –  the ripping yarns, the gut-busting-funny ones, the sweet ones.  My mother might ask, “What’s wrong with that?” but I know, and you probably know, too, that such a philosophy makes the hearer woefully unprepared for Real Life.  People turn on their brothers, they scream, “I hate you!” at their mothers, they poke fun and cry for no reason and get drunk and fall down stairs.  And then we forget

Sometimes.

I don’t want those stories to be forgotten.  Because what makes up a family is people, and people have warts as well as the “family nose.”  So I’ll be telling a few warty stories, too.

My grandmother Sarah Lou, whose parents are buried in a small family plot on a farm not our own, was once grieving that the plot wasn’t kept up as she’d like, and I admitted to being puzzled.  “Why does it matter?” I asked.  “Once you die, you’re not in your body.  I don’t think it matters to me what happens to my body or my grave after I die.  Put me in the ground with a little respect, and then I don’t care.”

She was, to say the least, upset with me.  It mattered a great deal to her, and she grieved that she wasn’t able to go visit her parents’ graves.  She was always like that – physical things meant a lot to her.  She could point to every single item in her crowded apartment in the basement of our house and tell you exactly where she got it, and when, and why: “Willie Maude gave me that singing stuffed bear for my birthday.  I bought that big shell in Florida, visiting Maurice, when your mother was a college girl.  That big iron pot was my mama’s laundry washpot.”  Physical things were important to her because they stood for people, and gifts meant love.

Granted, I was a teenager at the time, and not a particularly tactful one, either.  But I still feel like that.  I don’t feel a great need to put up big fancy headstones or place flowers every week.  At my other grandmother’s funeral last week, two of the grandchildren were overcome with tears at the graveside, thinking of her body in the cold ground.  I myself was overcome with the reading from Revelation: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors,” because in my head I was hearing the lovely chorus with those words from John Rutter’s Requiem, “Lux Aeterna.”  I’ll see Nell again someday, and Sarah Lou too.

I can see them, and hear them, in my head right now, telling me stories.  The photo up top is them, of course, at my brother’s wedding six years ago, Nell on the left and Sarah Lou on the right, taken by my sister (I think).

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8 thoughts on “Family Stories, Part I”

  1. Muse, this is a wonderful story and I look forward to reading more. It did not surprise me to find out that you are the oldest – you share that sense of responsibility and purpose that my oldest sister has, too.

    Nell and Sarah Lou sound wonderful and you have brought them both to life through your writing. Very nice.

  2. What a lovely post.

    Like you, I am the oldest and a storyteller, and I’ve been feeling the need to get down on paper family remembrances about my mother-in-law. She was fantastic, and I miss her dearly. I deeply regret that my children never knew her, which is why I’m feeling the push to gather stories about her.

    You also reminded me how very fortunate I am – I’ll be 40 this year, and wonder of wonders, three of my grandparents are still alive, with the oldest turning 90 in August. One thing I’m very grateful for is that I spent a weekend with my oldest grandma about ten years ago where I brought my tape recorder and spent hours just asking questions. I’ve got about ten hours of her telling stories, and what makes it even more poignant is that even though she’s still alive, she doesn’t remember very many of those stories anymore.

    1. Oh, Dionne – so glad you had the opportunity to spend some time with your grandmother hearing the stories. I did try to do something of the sort with Sarah Lou, but she would become very upset after a short period of time, thinking of people long gone, and it was just not profitable for either of us to continue. It was five minutes of, “My brother Ernest gave me that toy when I was four years old,” and then two hours of tears… she just couldn’t manage talking about the past much, although she did tell me stories about my mother, her only child, when I was growing up.

      I know all of Nell’s funny stories about her children (to this day, my kids and I call toast “toost” because my aunt Becky’s imaginary friend Zylene called it that!), but very little about her young life. When I would ask questions, she seemed not to want to talk about it, either. Sigh.

  3. I loved your story, and I loved even more what preceded it.
    Like you, I am fond of family stories, keeping the memory of people and events alive.
    As the elders of my family are narrowing down in number, and losing their own memory in their struggle with age, I feel the need of knowing as much as possible of what has happened before, to preserve stories and know how, recipes and traditions.
    I look very much forward to your next stories!
    A hug and my best wishes for a happy new year!

  4. What a lovely post on this last day of the year! I, too, am the oldest daughter and it seems the family keeper of stories and pictures so can relate to the sense of responsibility (and sadness) that can go along with that.

    And may I add I had a similar experience with trying a cigarette?! I was going to die right there on spot. Convinced me to never try it again.

    I’ve spent the last few months settling my mom’s estate and dispersing my parents’ belongings accumulated during their 60 years together. It was like watching them disappear little by little as the material possessions were removed from their home. But their spirit lives on in me, my brother, our children and grandchildren and that has sustained me on many difficult days. My father was big on going forth, be productive, live a good life and so we have

    Wishing you health, happiness and joy for the new year!

    1. Hi there T – must be something about that Oldest Daughter position that encourages being the repository of family stuff. Maybe it means more to us?

      Oh, that cigarette story… it still makes me laugh. The *sneakiness* with which I took my ill-advised puff! How dumb I felt afterward! (and yet, how loved, too.)

      So sorry that you’ve had to deal with losing your parents, and disperse their things. You are right – they are still with you and the family, and the best way to honor them is to have good lives.

      Sarah Lou died more than four years ago, and my mother still has not finished going through her things. *I* would have gone through and picked out a few special items, invited each grandchild and great-grandchild to pick out things that had personal meaning for them, and then taken the rest to Goodwill (or the antiques store). But Mom seems to feel that she has to “find a home” for every single item – paperback books, gently-used half-slips, dishes, magazines, old sewing patterns, you name it… and since Sarah Lou was something of a packrat, Mom’s still at it. Worse, she feels guilty about “getting rid of Mother’s things,” though there isn’t a single one of them Sarah Lou needs now. Sigh.

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