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.