Monday, August 23, 2010

Storeytellers

By Kathleen Bradean

My mother’s people are from the southern end of the Smoky Mountain range, where TV and radio reception was spotty in the days before satellites. Her mother was from a family with thirteen children who survived to adulthood, her father from a family with eleven. Sixty-four of her cousins were listed in the family birth records, although less than half lived past their first year. So as you can imagine, when family got together, it was an event. Dogs yapping at our heels as second cousins swarmed over the sparse lawn in a chaotic game of tag; exploring the barns that were falling apart in slow motion under rampant morning glory vines; coaxing wild kittens out from under the house; wading in the tiny pool at the end of the creek that crossed my grandfather’s land; searching for my parent’s initials carved into a tree. Near sundown, my grandfather tapped and turned watermelons on the vine until he found a few that suited. Then, by the back porch, he’d cut them into huge chunks and hand them around. We settled on the steps to eat watermelon still warm from the waning sun and spit seeds into the dirt. That’s when the stories began.

The stories were usually long, drawn out tales about sly hounds and even craftier raccoons we’d heard many times before. Half the pleasure was knowing where the stories were going but not how you’d get there, since every uncle had a different version. As fireflies twinkled across the lawn, some cousins went to chase them. I sat with the adults, transfixed by our storytellers. Many times, I fell asleep under the moon, in some aunt’s lap, my face and hands sticky with watermelon juice.


My father was a first generation American. When his family gathered, it was a much smaller affair. We fit around my grandmother’s dining table. They told stories about each other, but only about their time in America. Later, when my cousins and sisters slipped under the table to sleep, the stories shifted. That’s how I found out that my great-grandfather met my great-grandmother when she danced on a table in a tavern. That’s how I learned that he fled to America after killing an army officer in a bungled burglary of the army depot, and how, several years later, he sent enough money to his wife to follow him to America, but not enough to bring their son. “We can always have more children,” he told her. She refused to travel until he sent enough for my grandfather. They never had another child. Sometimes, I wish I’d been able to see their expressions as that story was told – my grandfather, knowing that his father was willing to abandon him, and my great-grandfather the murderer sitting across the table from him. Other times, I’m glad I didn’t.

After the family dirty laundry was aired – and believe me, that wasn’t nearly half of it – the stories shifted. The lighting in the dining room filtered through my grandmother’s lace tablecloth to a dim golden glow under the table. A clock ticked loudly in the farmhouse parlor. Sometimes, it got so quiet that I could hear the chickens clucking from the three Quonset huts where they lay eggs. Most of my cousins were deeply asleep by then, but those of us who were still awake stared into each other’s eyes and held our breaths, because once the family stories were over, it was time for the old people to talk about the frovoliki – the vampires. All of those stories took place back in the village they left behind. Vampires, it seemed, weren’t part of their new world, thank goodness. Then, finally, the stories were so old that they couldn’t be told in English. That’s the time I drifted off.

Why do I tell stories? It’s simple, really. It’s my inheritance – richer than money, more enduring than things.

14 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing such an excellent post. It brought back such wonderful memories of the family stories told at my grandmother's table.

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  2. Donna - That's why I always try to get my parents to tell their tales. It's harder now, because people don't know how to tell a story like they used to, but it's just as important.

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  3. Wow. Nothing more to say really. Just wow.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this! There's nothing remotely comparable in my family, except for my father's stories of his work (as a mental health social worker) in which, in order to persuade patients to return voluntarily to hospital he sometimes had to be a messenger from God, or whatever other identity fitted their delusions...

    Incidentally 'frovoliki' isn't a word I've come across before, even in connection with vampires, so I'm wondering what language it comes from?

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  5. Fulani - remember that I'm spelling it out phonetically. I never saw it written down. It might have started with a v instead of an f. It could be Romanian or Hungarian, or even Polish. My great-grandfather would often try to pass as Hungarian when he saw a profit in it.

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  6. What a fantastic post. Even though we've talked about some of this before, your writing never ceases to amaze and thrill me.

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  7. Ash - I forgot to thank you. So thank you. *being quietly pleased*

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  8. Just quickly on 'frovoliki' - I've spent far more time than I should have done trying to fins stuff on this, including checking a lot of the anthropology books on my bookshelves, because I'm reasonably well up on vampire legends and terms and didn't recognise it... I wonder if the likely term was 'Vrykolakas' (which I think is a singular form so disregard the -as suffix) - Greek, has the generic meaning of an undead creature, somewhat linked to though not precisely the same as a vampire.

    There's another similar term in Lithuanian that actually refers to werewolves, and similar words for werewolves in some other Eastern European languages.

    That may have muddied rather than clarified things... but if you ever want to investigate there's a Wikipedia page for Vrykolakas that links to some of the other Eastern European terms as well.

    If I were you though I'd stick with your spelling, there's something interesting and slightly sinister, but also slightly fun about it (maybe because of the similarity to 'frivolity'?)

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  9. Fulani - Aha! So it was a V (and a few other letters I got completely wrong) But werewolves? Huh. I wish I could remember those stories better now.

    And you're right - it seems more sinister when it looks like frivoloty.

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  10. Thank you for this. This has soul. It really taps into what we aspire to do. One of the best posts I've seen here.

    Garce

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  11. Dear Kathleen,

    This was one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I've read on the Grip. Thank you.

    And beyond the beauty of your reminiscences, I think that you're probably right about where and when you got hooked on telling stories.

    Hugs,
    Lisabet

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  12. Well, I don't know whether Greece (or even Lithuania) makes sense in terms of your family history. A Greek origin would suggest the word related to vampires, a Lithuanian one (and possibly some other Eastern European ones) would suggest werewolves. But I guess you have something to go on, now, in terms of tracking the word back...

    I still think your spelling is cool though - and thanks again for your original post.

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