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Paul Turner: Ode to the oral traditions of family gatherings

Paul Turner (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Turner (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

We all know why family reunions can be a bit of pain.

Some of our relatives are difficult. And difficult people can make reunions, well, trying. It takes only one or two political rants or diatribes about the state of society to make you sigh and ask yourself why you came.

Perhaps this summer especially.

But there’s no need to rehash all that. Let’s turn our attention instead to the unsung heroes of these clan gatherings: Men and women who know how to tell family stories.

Those tales about loyal old dogs and the unique way Uncle Ethan proposed to Aunt Janet are the glue that binds extended families.

It could be argued that storytellers’ ranks are thinning as our time-honored oral traditions give way to smart phones and fast thumbs. But they have not disappeared, as some of us can happily attest. Those who can tell a decent remember-when anecdote still produce smiles, laughter and even hugs around the campfire or at family picnics.

These people are genuine treasures. Let’s take a moment to salute them.

Now here’s the thing. The ability to tell a good family story requires more than a simple willingness to talk about one of your relatives – and not yourself – for a few minutes. What it really calls for is a generous spirit and a good heart.

You know meaningful sharing when you hear it. Sometimes it begins with a gentle throat-clearing and then “You might not realize this about your dad, but back when we were both young …”

Humor can be a welcome ingredient. Dramatic tension is a plus. But the desire to lift listeners up in a web of shared pride is the real business at hand. Lift them up with narratives about …

The time your cousin rescued a collie that had fallen through the ice.

The time your aunt took in that abused and abandoned neighbor girl.

The time your late great-grandfather landed his B-17 with two engines on fire.

The time your little brother stood up to the bully.

Celebrating such memories and making sure the youngest generation hears them is one excellent reason for reunions. Your sister-in-law’s oniony potato salad might be another.

Those stories, even if they are embellished in the retelling, make a statement: This is who we are. And we remember.

OK, there are those who think being a decent storyteller necessarily involves the ability to rattle off 10-minute stem-winders, sprawling yarns fit for a drop-the-microphone stage performance. No doubt, that capability can certainly make for an entertaining listening experience.

Still, those aren’t always the sort of stories that highlight family reunions. Sometimes quiet praise for an unassuming relative’s impressive moment of fortitude or unfailing decency can transform a ho-hum gathering into an affirmation of your family’s self-esteem.

Let’s hear it for our gene pool!

There are plenty of other settings for complaining about erratic bosses and ex-spouses as well as life’s many other disappointments. Maybe it’s fitting that family reunions be at least partly dedicated to taking note of the people of substance in our midst.

And those family members now gone.

What makes a family storyteller special? Maybe it’s simply remembering that there are many different kinds of love stories.

Some start this way: “I’ll never forget the time …”

What if you have heard it all before? Doesn’t matter. That’s why they call them greatest hits.

Baby, you can drive my car

I have a few questions about who does the driving in local families.

When a married couple is in the vehicle, is it always the husband who does the driving?

Is that even more true in rural areas than in Spokane?

When you see that the wife is behind the wheel, do you assume the husband has macular degeneration or some other physical limitation?

Do gender roles and driving have anything to do with who actually is the better driver?

Is the rigidity with which couples adhere to the man-does-the-driving ethos predictive of how those couples vote?

End Note

So I paid for a few grocery items with a $50 bill and the cashier gave me my change, counting back the amount as he placed the money in my palm.

“That’s something you could write about,” he said.

I asked if he was referring to the practice of counting back when handing over change.

“Yes, nobody does that anymore.”

I agreed. Of course, I’m the only person in Spokane who still uses cash. So there’s that.


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