This I Believe

Bonnie - Kalamazoo, Michigan
Entered on January 9, 2007

Sit, drink, tell stories

I believe that people should sit around a table and drink and tell stories. Eight can sit comfortably at the blocky zinc-topped table on the screen porch at my grandfather’s river cottage, but it’s better when there are a dozen or more of us cousins and friends with wine glasses or coffee cups, slicing into peach and blueberry pies. And there is the primitive pine table in my mother’s kitchen, carved with names and graffiti. My mother might have homemade wine or you might have to brew tea. In summer, the table will be piled with unwashed squashes and tomatoes.

Cousin Sam can tell about hopping freight trains, something he gave up recently to become a daddy. Nate might talk about a crazy Russian gangster he encountered in Latvia. Loring might share something about the Reverend Gary Davis, who married him to his wife. My sister might go on about her medical woes. You learn a lot about people by the stories they tell.

My grandfather thought the world was basically a fair and decent place. Until he was 91, he drank sherry before lunch, and he would cross his thin legs (bowed from rickets in his youth, something he never mentioned) and tell us about, say, the mechanic who used to work for his construction company, the best diesel mechanic ever, only the fellow refused to work on dirty engines, so they had to steam clean the trucks and cranes before he would touch them. Or Grandpa might tell about when he was a little “ragamuffin” in Minneapolis and he saw a fine horse-drawn carriage coming through the park. The man in the carriage tipped his tall black top hat to my grandfather, who thrilled to realize that this was the president, Woodrow Wilson. The moment still thrilled him at age 91.

My mother, a farmer, tells stories about animals, including rough stories like about teaching our old jenny donkey to load by hitting her with a two-by-four. Around the time she got diagnosed with breast cancer, she started re-telling the story about our dog Brownie. Us kids had walked to the store and Brownie slipped her leash and ran toward the front of the oncoming Amtrak, then disappeared underneath. We called my mother from the store, weeping. “Mommy, Brownie got run over by the train.” Mom showed up with a gunny sack and a shovel. She ventured onto the tracks and found Brownie between the rails, alive, with only a scrape on her head. She wrapped Brownie in the gunny sack and brought her home, and she lived. I never got tired of hearing this story of resurrection. After my mother’s surgeries and during the follow-up treatment, she told me, “I think the radiation is energizing me. I feel very energetic after those treatments.”

Sometimes people say they get tired of hearing the same old stories, but when somebody tells one, I feel joy just like when an old friend comes through the door.