Re-telling family stories

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(HOST) For generations, families and friends have gathered together on long winter nights to re-tell favorite stories. Commentator David Moats recently did just that.

(MOATS) Whenever I go out West to visit family, I’m reminded
of how fragile memory is and how the stories we tell tend to
drift away from the facts.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s all fact, remembered differently by different people – or completely forgotten.

I seem to be the only one who remembers the story of the family member years ago who got caught in a flood when a dam broke and ended up separated from her head. No one remembers who
it was or whether it’s true. But I remember my grandmother, or someone, telling the story. Or maybe I dreamed it – but I don’t think so.

That story falls in the same category as the story of my grand-
father’s sister, who exploded into flames when she sat by the
fire after she was massaged with rubbing alcohol. Except that’s a story everyone remembers. For my grandfather the memory of the day his sister died caused him to shake his head sadly even late in his life. I’ve got a photo of his family, including his sister, on my living room wall. I tell people, that’s the one who burned up.

But we don’t remember just the morbid stories. During this last visit my mother told me about her uncle Hal, who had a buddy named Jim who moved into Hal’s house for a long stay. They drank a lot, and my mother said they were the funniest pair she ever knew. I had only heard stories of Hal’s various derelictions.

As I get older, these stories are losing their connection with their sources because their sources are dying. Which means that I am now the source, along with my brothers and sisters. And I’m not sure what’s true and what isn’t, at least about some of this stuff.

I seem to remember that my mother’s uncle Hal fought with General Pershing against Pancho Villa along the Mexican border. My brother doesn’t remember that, but it makes a good story, so
I like to believe it’s true.

This is what an oral tradition is. We are given stories, and we
tell them over and over again as if they are true. For how many generations did the Greeks tell the stories of Achilles and Odysseus until Homer wrote them down? People say, Gee,
I ought to write this stuff down. But nobody does.

The other day my son was looking at the photos on the living room wall that showed his grandparents and great-grandparents. It was as if he was noticing them for the first time. I’ll have to tell him about my great-grandfather who was a friend of Buffalo Bill. It’s true. At least my aunt told me it was true – although sometimes I’m not so sure about my aunt. This was the great-grandfather with the peg leg. The peg leg I know was true. My mother remembers it. He used to dance with it. At least that’s what the story says.

This is David Moats from Salisbury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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