My Dad and his wife came to visit. I wasn’t surprised to hear him say he wanted to fly half way around the world to see me, my husband, and his grandchildren. I was surprised when he actually showed up. He hadn’t traveled but a few hundred miles from home in over twenty years. I thought he was done with road trips and distant vacations. Nonetheless, he told me on the phone that they were ready for a transatlantic flight.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected, mind you. It had been planned. There was a flight number and an arrival time, hotel reservations, and a few “when in Rome, do like the Romans” bits of advice through email, but to see him actually show up at the airport, well, it was a shock. I knew there would be some nice moments; day trips to castles and a few museum visits. But to be honest, I’d only met his new wife once before and it wasn’t like the whole fam damily was flying over to fill every corner of my home with kids and food and family gossip. It felt awkward, and I wondered if we’d have anything to talk about.
I hadn’t anticipated the impact their arrival would have on the troops: my kids. It was two weeks of glory for my children. The goldmine that is my father’s storytelling hurled forth the very best jewels and gems from decades and decades of family history, some from before he was born. The children couldn’t believe the authority with which he spoke and his knowledge of a time so distant and of people so completely unknown to them. They would later tell me it was like The History Channel and Comedy Central all rolled into one. The same children I couldn’t get to be still from the first time I said, “Pick up your toys!” to the last time I said, “Sit up straight, you’re in college now!” were right on some unseen cue taking the same positions as I had years ago: elbows on the table, chins in hand, eyes wide so as not to miss a single syllable. And laugh, my goodness did they laugh. And it was fresh laughter, not the knowing guffaws of me and my siblings.
Oh, we enjoyed the stories over and over, but our laughter wasn’t new. We laughed because we knew what was coming. My children, however, were bellowing a genuine, singularly united, “I’ve never heard anything like that before in my life, oh, my sides!” kind of laughter. Their giggles and hoots made them seem young again and my Dad younger. They couldn’t wait to hear the next story as much as he couldn’t wait to tell the next story. It was the same loving, life-giving exchange I’d been privy to throughout my entire childhood, with one exception: my children had not broken bread at a different table than the big people and then scooted in to the dining room in hopes of negotiating a seat in the main hall of this most-anticipated family event. My children had front row tickets.
I was grown, married, and lived far from home by the time a seat had opened up at the big people table. Good story telling will do that to a person, bless them with longevity. In fairness, we little people of yesteryear (at any given time we were two months to 25 years of age) had our own good time in the other room as we feasted on ham and turkey and caught up with cousins from far away. Our fun did also occasionally involve lobbing bits of Aunt Peg’s pink stuff across the room to see who could catch it in their mouth – and who would bonk heads in the process. At Christmas we would bat an ornament between tables until it broke, signaling a call from the other room to “Stop that now!” At Easter we would pick teams (which is to say all my older cousins would decide who was going to get hurt first) for a rousing game of Kill-The-Guy-With-The-Ball. This bi-annual sport ensued for about an hour, give or take the number and severity of head injuries.
Years later I would learn of my Grandmother’s unspoken rule that the best gossip and the really good stories weren’t to be shared until we children were outside. Eventually though, we kids would retreat back to the house for dessert and claim the standing-room only spaces between and behind the chairs at the big people table. My Grandfather would call this great family meeting to order, not with a gavel, but with the beginning of what we knew would have us in stitches within minutes. “Well, now your Uncle Wade,” he’d nod to us children, “your Great Uncle Wade, he had been in the Navy and he did like his whiskey.”
My parents and my aunts and uncles would grin ear to ear while Grandma fidgeted with the hand towel in her lap. She herself had more than once told the story of how her brother-in-law would come drunkenly calling on them for a place to stay while on shore leave. It was his brother’s home, but Uncle Wade knew who really ruled the roost. He’d knock, open the screen door, and throw his hat into the house. If his hat came back, and sometimes it did, he knew to move on. But this time, Grandpa was telling the story, and Grandma was rolling her eyes. That was the sign we children had waited for; it meant permission had been given. The really good stories were going to get told, and they did, well into the night.
Here now, my Dad and my children are thoroughly enjoying each other. He tells those same stories like a pro, sitting in and speaking for Uncle George, Great Aunt Della, Uncle Bill, Great Uncle Wade, and my Grandparents. And my Dad’s wife doesn’t let me down, rolling her eyes and fidgeting with her dinner napkin.
Even if there had been enough of us to warrant more than one table, I would’ve scooted them all together – so that no one missed a single syllable.