The value of a story

Over the years, readers of this blog have asked me about why I tell  the stories of people and of objects.

I realize that both were bred into me by my parents. Both of my parents spent much of their adult lives separated from family.
My mother was in close contact with one of her older sisters despite their living in different cities, countries or even continents all long before the era of inexpensive long distance calling.  Throughout my childhood light blue aerograms were sent back and forth from Presidents Lane in Quincy, and Rechov bar-Kochba in Jerusalem.  I now see those weekly letters as proto-blg posts.

My mother and her sister shared concerts, museum visits and nature walks. There was talk of family but both my mother and her older sister felt that by describing a moment, the glint of sun on the ocean, a meal with rarely seen relatives, a visit to a wonderful antique store, a solo by a particularly gifted musician they could include the other in their experience.

My mother used to ask all of us to share moments in our own lives in the same granular way. There were times, I found my mother's desire to hear a "report" to be intrusive. And despite my lack of willingness to share all with my mother, I appreciate the skills I gained from all of that training.

My father, in his job as a rabbi loved to find out the story of how someone became who they were. My father spent lots of time at the side of  the hospital beds of his congregants. I suppose that for him after a while just hearing the progress of an illness was less interesting than to find out how someone's family ended up in Quincy. One family had emigrated from Poland to Boston and had planned to travel to Quincy, Illinois. They asked directions to Quincy and ended up taking the commuter train rather than the train to Illinois, and just stayed.

My mother adored the story that Itzy Schwartz told about how when his grandfather died at home he was laid out on the floor until he was taken away by the chevre kadisha. Itzy was perhaps five. He didn't realize that his grandfather had died, and asked him for Chanukah gelt. When his grandfather didn't reply Itzy  said "It's OK Zaidy, maybe next year."

My mother loved how one of the sisters with the family with the great names ( Cookie,  Sudsie and Bubsie) was asked by her uptight New England teacher to sing a song and belted out

Here is the translation in case you didn't hear Sudsie, Bubsie, Cookie or my mother belt out this song or understand the original Yiddish.

The Greenhorn Cousin

My cousin just arrived in New York City
That little greenhorn has become so pretty
With gorgeous cheeks just like red pome-granates
And happy feet to dance around the planet.
 
So I arranged from a next door neighbor
A job for her since she needed to find labor
His store made clothing for the newfound gentry
She blessed me and her wonderful new country.
 
Many years have passed for my dear cousin
Tsures (1) she has had here by the dozen
The work for her has been awfully draining
That nothing from her youth is found remaining.
 
Now beneath her eyes which were so sparkling
Are lines so deep and ever-dark'ning
Those pomegranate cheeks made for a day-dream
have faded now into a sullen grey-green.
 
Nowadays when I see my dear cousin
I ask her, "greenhorn how have things been' buzzin"?
She glares at me and answers adamantly:
Columbus should have burned down this whole country!

Our lives were populated with the stories of relatives we had never met, congregants from Halifax and Quincy both alive and dead. 

At my nephew's bar mitzvah my sister had expected the long Shabbat afternoon to be taken up with long walks to the botanical garden at Wave Hill. Instead , the pouring rain kept us all indoors lounging on benches in the synagogue hallways. My mother and my father in law were sprawled out on neighboring benches. My mother turned to my father in law and asked him, " Tell me about when you were poor."  My father in law then un-spooled the story after story that I had never heard before. My mother has learned the perfect leading question. I am grateful for what I had learned about my father in law's early (and deprived) life.

The stories I learned at the dinner table helped shape who I am.
I do understand the world through narrative. I also learned how listening to a story can help you understand the essence of who a person is.

Comments

  1. This is a lovely post. Big hugs across the pond. Sandy

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  2. This is such a wonderful blog post. I'm so often moved by your stories of your family. Thank you.

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