Ever get treated to a story by a friend or acquaintance, and stand in awe of how well it’s told? I’m talking about the kind of experience in which someone says, “Have I got a story for you!” and gosh darn if they weren’t absolutely right.
I appreciate the telling of a good story not only for the details sprinkled throughout by an adept storyteller, but for a focused storyline and engaging ending that leaves me saying, “Ahhhhh. I shall not soon forget that tale,” as I kick up my feet on a velvet footstool, lean back into my worn leather chair, and take a sip of sherry, mesmerized by what I’ve just heard.
Enough with that crack-pipe dream. I have children. I don’t have friends who drop by for stimulating conversation in the parlor. I have a countertop, with unidentifiable smears that stick to my sleeves, or even more enjoyable, my bare arms. Furthermore, I use that same countertop to speed through the latest People magazine. When my doorbell rings, it isn’t Robert Redford and Meryl Streep showing up with a bottle of fine cognac to “have a story now” as they did in Out of Africa. It’s a girlfriend looking to discuss this week’s episode of Real Housewives of Crazytown.
Where have all the good stories gone? Where is the oral tradition that passed on such epic dramas as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Beowulf, so many centuries ago? As much as I love the written word, I just find it more satisfying to listen in rapt delight and watch the facial expressions of a human being standing before me, weaving action and dialogue, humor and tragedy, into oral gold.
Most of the stories I’m treated to are told by my little people, which means that what they lack in plot, they make up for in incoherence. Endings? Not so much. With my kids’ stories, it’s not a matter of when they end, but if.
My daughter’s stories are so long I’m sure that someday when I’m comparing war stories from a rocking chair with my friend Gladys, the conversation will likely go something like this:
“Say, dearie, when did you go through menopause,” Gladys will ask me, as we sit on the porch of some old folks home, our necks craning and our tongues searching for the bendy straws sticking out of our 32-ouncers.
“Let’s see…what year was it when Landry turned nine? Let me think…”
“Wow, you went through menopause in one year?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Gladys; I went through menopause while my daughter told me about her first day of fourth grade.”
(Note: To be totally honest, I have not gone through menopause. That was purely an imaginative attempt at making a point.)
Now that I’ve covered length, I can spend a little time on delivery.
You know you are talking to my ten-year old daughter when the end of almost every sentence sounds like it should be a question, but it’s not. Think of the tone of one’s voice when picking up the phone and saying, “Hello?” That’s how all of the sentences sound when she tells a story. Not only that, short her stories are not.
Unfortunately, my daughter is not completely responsible. Genetics are also working against her. My daughter comes from a long line of women who would no sooner leave a detail, no matter how irrelevant, out of story than they would throw cat shit all over their living room just to see where it landed. Sadly, I’m one of them. I’m working on it.
The compelling orations that come forth multiple times a day from my daughter are also sans verbal punctuation, otherwise known as logical pauses. The question-yet-not-actually-a-question-tone of voice takes the place of periods and commas. In one aspect it’s rhythmic and almost hypnotic, as her voice rises and falls and rises and falls, until…it becomes evident that the sentences just keep coming…and coming…and coming.
Quite honestly, listening to my daughter tell a story sometimes causes me a bit of anxiety. It’s like watching a movie in which some poor lady crashes a car into a river. Water begins to fill the interior. The water is rising. It’s up to her chest. She desperately claws at the door handle and pounds on the window. Then, the water is up to her chin. It covers her mouth as she juts her chin up and tries to keep her nose above water. This is the point where you yell, “Breathe through your eyes! Breathe through your eyes!” Then, the water level is over the top of her head. She’s completely under water, and you’re thinking, “She’s got to breathe! Breathe! But she can’t! She can’t take a breath or she’s dead! She struggles, but still, she can’t inhale! You’re watching this and you suddenly realize you’re holding your own breath, and possibly digging your nails into the arm of the person sitting next to you.
I’ll bet you’re just holding your own breath in anticipation of an example. I’ll bold each word that should be said with the same rise to the voice as a person would when picking up the phone and saying “Hello?”
Ready? Here we go? Are you getting the picture? I’m going to begin? Don’t forget to pause slightly at each bolded word, and say it the way you would if you were picking up the telephone and saying Hello?
“Mom, you won’t believe what happened today. Okay, so, today at recess Kaylie M. and Kylie R did that thing to Khloe and Kayla who had their backs turned and Mrs. Gardner told them again not to but they did it anyway and right then Clem Cadiddlehopper caught the ball and threw it up on the roof so that we couldn’t get it and Mr. Souza walked by and looked at us and said, “Hello girls!” and so then, later, at recess, I was on the swings with Keely and Sammy S. and then the bell rang and we lined up for lunch and guess what?
“What.” (I purposely withhold any trace of intonation that would indicate I am asking a question. I am taking a moral stand at this point and refuse to contribute to the shameful overpopulation of question/statements in the world. In fact, I may even start an effort to rid the planet of needless statements, questions and possibly, all communication whatsoever. I may just climb trees all day.
Back to the story?
“Right then, Chloe and Kayla turned around, and oh my gosh.” The look on my daughter’s face communicated just one thing to me: I had missed something.
I quickly rewound, only to end up with a mental pile of tangled, black cassette tape encasing my head which I could only hope would result in a swift and painless death as it tightened around my throat. Technically, because I could not detect any exposition, rising action, climax or falling action, what I’d just heard wasn’t a story. I know the little darling tried to tell me something, but what was it?
I fondly recall the days, somewhere in the neighborhood of eight years ago, when my daughter’s stories took this form:
“Mama, I went potty in the potty chair at Nona’s house today!”
Now, that’s a story! A not-so vibrant verb, but who cares! Look at all those setting details: in the potty chair! At grandma’s house! Today! The only thing I was required to do all those years ago was smile, put out my arms and hug. There was no quiz at the end, in the form of, “Mom, did you hear me?” or “Mom, are you listening,” or the occasional, “Mom, why is your head in the oven?”
Now, it’s a little different. What makes it all even more fun is the anxiety I feel as the non-story- story seems oh-so-close to wrapping up, and my almost 13-year old son suddenly becomes aware there are people in the room with him. Like Rip van Winkle, his little head jerks a bit and the glazed-over look disappears from his already wide-open eyes. How he managed to daydream during the last ten minutes is beyond me. The glimmer of hope I had just seconds before of possibly being lucky enough to escape the scene with no more than a slight trickle of blood from my ear, as if I’d been concussed with a blunt object, recedes. My son opens his mouth and speaks:
“Wait. What happened?”
Then, she starts over.
I feel the two halves of my brain slowly detach from one another. A jackhammer sparks to life between my ears. I cannot listen to this again, I think to myself. No matter that I’m in the middle of making custard in the double boiler – I’ve got to get out of here! I try to sell her my departure.
“Well, I just heard the story, so I’ll just go in the other room and…”
“No! Mom. You didn’t hear what happened to them after she did that!”
What the hell is she talking about, I wondered to myself. Why don’t I get it? She basically just told me about every muscle that moved on the playground from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Why did every sentence sound like the question of the century? Would the falling action ever appear, let alone the conclusion? What is wrong with me?
Back to my original assertion: with kids and their stories, it isn’t about “when” they might end, it’s a matter of “if” you can survive them. Pull up a comfortable chair when you come to my house.