Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Whole Story

We all have them. In fact, some of us have more than others. Family stories. Historical ones, inspirational ones, and, of course, humiliating ones. Though I am certain that many of you hear your share of these at any family gathering, it is the storytellers (or cuentistas) among us who carry these tales forward. Though, as I came to find out about my mother’s tales, they are not always based in fact, but are sometimes closer to fiction, but I had to inherit the skill from somewhere, verdad?

I started telling stories when I was five. In the sixties, family vacations were road trips. Every summer my parents would load the five of us kids into our VW van and head down to Florida to visit our grandparents. We would stop at the South of the Border stores, purchase pounds of colorful plastic souvenirs, eat massive amounts of heavy comfort food, and stay at motels with tiki-themed pools. On one particular occasion we had been on the road for several days and had run out of things to talk about. My brothers and sisters surrounded me with arms crossed and sulky looks on their faces as we putted along highway 95. Seeing the possibilities for an audience I announced, “Once, I had a pony.”


I looked over and saw that my brother John was smirking at me and suddenly realized that he would know I was lying since he was indeed six years older. I quickly added, pointing to John authoritatively, “I once had a pony, and then you were born.” Silence. Then uproarious laughter. Needless to say I will never live this down and though I am 45 it is still brought up at family gatherings, but that afternoon, when things calmed down in the car my mother gave me a lecture about not making up stories, and how I should always tell the truth.

My mother's insistence on the truth made sense to me as I never thought she had much of a flare for telling stories. There were certainly more talented cuentistas in the Davila family, but she had a few she would tell me from time to time, always with a seriousness that implied she was imparting a deep dark family truth for my own good. There was a room in her great aunt Ana's house, right next to the one we used to stay in when we went down to Puerto Rico for a visit. Ana would never let anyone in there: when she needed to get something out of it she would open the door just wide enough to slip through and close it behind her so I wasn’t able to follow. I couldn't imagine what was behind that slatted wooden door. Treasures? Scaly green monsters with glowing yellow eyes? I asked my mother about it one night as we tried to sleep to the whir of the air conditioner and the whine of mosquitoes above our heads.

"Why won't Anatia let anyone into that room?"

My mother replied, "Well, her father, my abuelo, shot himself in that room."

I gaped at her in the dark. "What? Why??" I squealed as she shushed me, looking toward the closed door as if Abuelo himself were listening from the other side.

"He was sick with TB and he didn't want to be a burden to his family, so he took out a pistol and shot himself in that very room. Anatia is the one who found him and since then no one can enter the room but her."

I lay there in silent awe, gently pulling my head away from the stucco wall that divided me from the memory of my great grand-father's violent death in the next room.

Over thirty years later, ten years after my mother's death, I was in a restaurant with my mother's siblings, and I mentioned the story of my great grandfather. Tio Jorge practically choked on his tostones.

"¿Que? Abuelo didn't shoot himself! He died very peacefully in a hospital! And that house Anatia lived in wasn't even built then!" I just stared at him, heat rising from my chest to my face.
Finally I sputtered, "What? Mom made it all up?" I began to recount the other stories she had told me. One after another, they were confirmed to be fiction. I was furious. Beyond furious. How could my mother feed me these lies year after year? And I believed her! I could just see her talking to me over her shoulder in the VW van, her self-righteous lecture about not telling stories ringing in my ears.

I stared at my half eaten lunch, tears gathering in my eyes. My cousin Jose Luis took my hand and said, "Annie, what does it matter if the stories are true or not? Isn't our family as defined by the stories that aren't true as by the ones that are? Write them down, Annie. That is your role in this family. Write them down, true or false. They are what makes us who we are."

It was this revelation that helped me become a writer as well as a storyteller. My cousin taught me a very important lesson that day and I often hear his wise words in my head. Every day we have less and less opportunities to hear these oral histories (or, in my family's case, historical fiction). Any hours spent traveling by car are now filled with Gameboys, individual DVD players watched with headsets on, our ears glued to cellular phones. Something has been lost in the electronic din. Something that once defined us. I want my son to hear the stories of his abuela, no matter how outrageous, how fabricated. It is the storytellers that continue to weave the fabric of our families by bringing these tales forward. So what if they add a bit of their own embroidery or embellishments along the way? I’ve come to believe that it is these intricate designs that define us, that reflect who we are as a family. So next Thanksgiving, let your drunken uncle Joaquin tell his tall tales. And be sure to take notes. You never know when you might want to remember it.


YAGRUMA said...

Wow!!! What a story, Anita. I loved it. You are a true storyteller... and I am sure you had your pony, somehow, somewhere!!! I loved it and I love you.
Frank in Miami

Anonymous said...

Such a wonderful piece! I would love to hear the audio from NPR...

Ann Hagman Cardinal said...

Thanks Tara, here it is: