It’s another rite of passage, like getting your driver’s license or taking your first legal drink. Those were the early emblems of adulthood. Later comes the first gray hair, the first mailing from AARP, and that first audible creak in your joints when you rise from a chair.
And then, out of nowhere, the moment arrives when the antique charm of your childhood becomes the stuff of legend.
Tell us a story about when you were a little girl, my grandchildren clamored during a recent visit. Never mind my boffo versions of “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” complete with character voices. They wanted the real deal, unedited chapters from long ago and far away.
Who knew that the 1950s held such fascination? To see their rapt faces, you’d think I was describing Roman chariot races. The accounts of how I broke my leg at age 3 and was bitten by a dog at 4 (followed by 14 rabies shots) received rave reviews. Ditto the time a monkey pulled my hair at Busch Gardens in Florida and Cape Cod vacations in cottages with no television. Did you have cars then, they wonder. Or did you ride horses? I’m not that old, I want to tell them.
But I get it. My parents were born in 1920, and to me, as a child, that seemed eons ago. Movies about the Roaring Twenties were full of flappers and gangsters, and though my mother assured me that she had been too young to dance the Charleston in a rope of pearls and a headache band, I had my own mental image of her youth.
Even better were the stories I coaxed my grandmother to tell, plying her with cups of tea and questions at the kitchen table. Born in 1898, she remembered the olden days in all their sepia-toned detail. She told me about gas lamps, and outdoor plumbing, and about her first job at age 14 as a telephone operator. I would beg her to do her operator voice, and say “Hello, Central,” and “What number, pleeyuz?”
Long before I studied history in school, I knew about doughboys and the Spanish Flu epidemic and Lindbergh’s flight. My grandmother’s recollections of young men marching through the streets of Hartford and the long line of horse-drawn hearses bearing coffins of flu victims to the cemetery were vivid in my memory, as was her story of standing on the front porch and cheering when The Spirit of St. Louis landed in Paris. When I read about these events in textbooks, the gray print seemed a poor substitute for the eyewitness accounts I knew by heart. Nana saw that, I would think proudly to myself. Nana was there.
My own story repertoire seems thin by comparison, but I’m just warming up. I’ve got the Korean War (my father shaking the mothballs out of his uniform, preparing for the call that did not come) and the Kennedy years (my little brother shaking JFK’s hand at Otis Air Force base). I’ve got Saturday mornings listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio and Saturday afternoons at the Rome Theater, where a quarter bought a double feature. I’ve got the first day of Kindergarten, when I cried because it ended at noon, and a hundred summer twilights in Eisenhower-era America, playing Prisoner’s Base in the fading light and listening for the bell on the Good Humor Ice Cream truck.
God created us because He loves stories, a Hasidic proverb proclaims. I watch the children listen as I tell about a long-ago encounter with a hornet’s nest in the backyard beech tree. I’ve got stories wound like skeins of yarn on the shelves of memory, my childhood, their father’s childhood, the near and distant past. I used to wonder why I was saving them. Now I know.