My youngest child is now an older teen and she possesses the cognitive skills necessary to understand, enjoy, and/or be mortified by the tales my family has long had a habit of spinning, especially around the holidays when the audience for these anecdotes is much larger than at any other time of the year. I’ve often regaled my readership with the tradition that is my family’s heirloom of choice, telling stories about Halloween and Christmas, and commenting on this or that human condition. Per the familial custom, I’ve never lied; nor have I ever allowed the truth to get in the way of a good story.
Sometimes the story is about telling a story to someone else, such that the story of telling someone a story is true, but the story that was told to someone else is not. Such was the case when all took their rightful places at the family table this last Christmas Eve to listen to and share new tales and retell old ones. As often happens, there need be only one word plucked from another story to set the stage for the next one, and so it was that my younger brother Gary seized upon the word “egg” (from someone’s story about their breakfast that morning) to get the yarn ball rolling full bore.
Before I tell you the story he told, I should first tell you why it left my youngest child aghast and slack-jawed. What she heard wasn’t unlike any of the numerous stories she’d heard before; and given her passing familiarity with the main characters, she didn’t need to be told who did what to whom to know, based on the what, to whom what was done.
Two stories in particular (which she’d heard during previous gatherings and would hear again later that night) had already lulled her into a place of unconditional belief. The first was from my Dad who had firsthand knowledge of my great-uncle Dorr who had married my grandmother’s sister, Ruth, in 1926. Dad’s knowledge of the story was secondhand, via my grandfather, Frank, but the details are easily confirmed by browsing the public record.
Because of a back injury, Dorr had been prescribed the once-legal, over-the-counter painkiller, Nervine – a powerful combination of alcohol and cocaine, among other ingredients. By the time he was healed he was addicted and he continued to indulge at ever higher, more frequent doses. At the literal height of his drug-induced paranoia, he armed himself and climbed to the top of a trapeze pole that had been erected by his circus neighbors for practice during their off season. Once aloft, he began to shoot into the night sky because, he yelled down to the cops and my grandfather, “The Russians are using the moon to spy on me!”
Fast forward 40 years to the alley behind my childhood home in the dead of winter. My brothers, male cousins, and a handful of boys from the neighborhood and I stood around in the dead of winter for want of something to do after being kicked out of our respective homes by our stir-crazy, cabin-fevered parents. We lived in what many called “The Catholic Ghetto” because we were all very Catholic and we were all very poor. There were few toys inside and damn sure none outside unless you looked real hard and expanded your definition of “toy.” Lo and behold, one of the boys found a cat that had been run over by a trash truck. It was deader than a doornail and twice as frozen. Initially it was a sad sight, but in the hands of the boys it became a projectile. They flung it forward into the air and at the same time it came down for its first bounce, one of its legs broke away and flew off into the opposite direction. We were stunned and horrified – until we busted into convulsions of laughter. Naturally, the boys had to see what other appendage might flee the hapless corpse while I, the only girl, recoiled behind my socked and plastic-bagged hands.
I incorrectly stated only two stories fed my youngest child’s belief of my brother’s story. To be sure, all good anecdotes start with a kernel of truth, and the best yarns are no exception. For years the family gathered at Grandma and Grandpa’s for the major holidays. At Easter, eggs were colored and marked with denominations which were then exchanged for coins collected among the big people. The 50-center was the prized golden egg. As if the finding of it was due to something other than plain old luck, those who found it still remember doing so and hold it over the rest of us to this day.
My youngest sat two chairs away as her uncle Gary began to tell of a co-worker who’d asked him way back in March if he’d taken his kids out for an Easter egg hunt. My brother replied, “No dude, my kids are teenagers. Besides, I haven’t liked Easter much since I was a child. Every year we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s, and every year one of my drunk uncles would be sittin’ in the garage spray-paintin’ bunnies different colors and throwin’ ’em out into the yard. He gave all us kids a .22 and whoever shot the golden bunny, well, that’s what we ate for dinner and I’ll be damned if I ever eat rabbit again as long as I live.”
I’d never before felt compelled to halt the effect of any story my family tells, but the look on my daughter’s face, while a great delight for all other family members, was also in danger of staying that way. I gently nudged her from her stupor and whispered, “It’s not true.” Old enough to come to her own defense as everyone else guffawed at her reaction, she sounded off, “Why wouldn’t I believe it? Have you heard any of the other stories that are true?” Indeed, it took my brother’s co-worker several days to come back and ask if his leg had been pulled.
My kids were raised around the world in the Marine Corps and weren’t privy to the storyteller-laden childhood I had growing up. They had me, though, and for a long time they weren’t sure what to believe of the stories I’d told. They were young teenagers the first time they took a seat at the great family table. My son summed it up best when he told his grandfather just a few weeks ago, “Until I was around all of you enough to hear the stories you tell over and over, I thought my mother was the biggest liar on the planet.”