I wasn’t the first storyteller in my family.
Even though I’m the first to write stories down and publish them, there’s a long history of tale-spinning in my family. Anyone who has sat at our dinner table can confirm it.
When I was growing up, dinner was a family affair. We all sat down together and ate together. Sometimes we would talk about our day, but my favorite evenings were when Dad would start telling childhood stories. All of them are based on true events that transpired in his childhood, although the details have been smoothed in some places and embellished in others over the years. Hearing them was like rereading a favorite book — even though I’d heard them before, I never tired of hearing them again.
Dad is a storyteller, even if he never defined himself as one. He foreshadows and teases to humorous endings to keep the listener hooked. He sprinkles in dialogue and pauses at the right places. He laughs at the end, and everyone laughs with him.
I’m the youngest of three daughters, and with each new husband who married into the family, the dinner table stories got retold. (Not that we ever needed a new audience or an excuse to retell them.) In recent years, a few new chapters have worked their way into these retellings — stories from my and my sisters’ childhoods as well as those from Dad’s.
Holiday dinners at my parents’ house have developed a tradition of their own. Everyone eats, then the kids go off to play while the adults linger, and a few of the stories get told again. There are perennial favorites, such as Uncle Fred’s elephant trap, or Uncle Ben’s bazooka. Pets is a topic unto itself. There are dozens of family stories about dogs and cats we’ve had.
Every so often, though, a new story surfaces. Just last weekend, I heard a story about a mulberry-loving neighbor who would lay a sheet under our mulberry tree and shake berries down, then bundle the sheet and carry it home over his shoulder like Santa with a sack of toys.
There are times when I’m at home with the husband that I say, “Have you heard the story about the time …” at which point he’ll remind me, “Yes, I’ve heard that one several times.” And he’ll tell me how the story ends, just to confirm he has indeed heard that one already.
I keep a journal of the stories now, writing them down whenever they float to the surface or when I hear a new one. I collect them partially to preserve the family history, but also as inspiration and fiction fodder. The very stories that get retold over and over in the dining room shaped me as a person, as a storyteller, and as a writer. They are a part of me, and I see their influence in every story I generate. Here and there, pieces of the tales get woven into my writing. It’s never the identical story, fact for fact and word for word, but the spirit of the telling lives on.
And for my family, they’ll know the story behind the story. The original tale can always be found at the dinner table.