published in Volume 6, Issue 1 on March 1st, 1999
Stories. Everyone has them, and everyone shares them. Stand around a water cooler at work, listen in when you're sitting at a restaurant, curl up with a worn paperback, cringe as your mother tells some strangers about the time you stuck a button up your nose, or sit in a darkened theater with hundreds of other people. Regardless of who you are or where you go, there's always a story to be had.
In my position as an instructor at the local university, I hear hundreds of stories every semester. I teach computer science, but that doesn't mean that they're all boring tales of conquering the latest security hole in Internet Explorer 5.0. Sometimes they're stories about student's backgrounds in computers or other various subjects. Other times the stories are of a more personal nature, both happy and sad, personal and professional. And regardless of how tired I might be by the end of a long day of grading or teaching, the stories are always interesting, fascinating, and exciting.
Back in February of this year, my wife and I traveled to Detroit for the funeral of her uncle Don. Uncle Don and Aunt Martha were major fixtures in our lives, despite the distance between Detroit and Omaha. How could they not be? They had visited Omaha for many holidays, and had come for a visit just two months prior for Christmas for what would be their last trip to Omaha together.
Aunt Martha comes from Lebanese descent and Uncle Don was Italian. Imagine how vocal and gesticular that combination was. Well, actually, it was mostly Aunt Martha talking and waving her arms and body around and Uncle Don rolling his eyes at what she was saying. Aunt Martha has to be one of the greatest storytellers I've ever encountered. She knows something about everything and, more importantly, everyone. Rumors, gossip and truth all combine into an intricate tapestry of an ongoing, never-ending story. Being with Aunt Martha is like being with Garrison Keillor, without the references to Lutherans and Minnesota.
After we arrived in Detroit after a grueling 12-hour drive from Nebraska, we went to Aunt Martha's house to pay our respects and be with the family. To an outsider, you wouldn't have known that anything sad had happened. Aunt Martha was bustling around, making sure everyone was doing fine and had enough to eat, telling grand stories of what had happened, who had visited, who hadn't visited, and what the rest of the weekend held for us.
That night or sometime the next day, a pad of paper was being passed around to various family members to write down any memories they had of Uncle Don that could be shared at the funeral. I eyed the tablet suspiciously, because although Uncle Don and Aunt Martha had been to Omaha many times since I married into "The Family", Uncle Don and I hadn't had many conversations. I did, however, have an interesting story to tell about Uncle Don, about a story he had told me on that last trip to Omaha. But I was too shy to share it then.
My last memory of Uncle Don is of him sitting at my in-laws' kitchen table, eating some sort of Lebanese bean dish. He stopped eating for a moment and motioned me over in that Uncle Don way that said, "Hey, c'mere, have I got a story for you."
I went over to the table and sat down.
"You ever go hunting, Bob?" came the lead-in to his story in that methodical, articulate Uncle Don way of speaking.
"Uh, yeah ... I mean, no. Uh, I'm not much of a hunter."
I should have known when that glint shone in his eye that I was being suckered into a tall tale rather than a serious discussion about hunting. Disregarding my response -- it really didn't matter what I had said -- he continued.
He told me a wild story that involved himself, some buddies, some drinking, a campfire, a surprise attack by a lonely bear, masturbation and a frustrated and disappointed bear at the end of the story. Up until the last sentence of his story, I hung on every word he said. The images he was conjuring up were vivid and real, they meant something to him and because of that they meant something to me. If ever there were a perfect match for Aunt Martha's storytelling, it was Uncle Don's.
At the funeral, the priest related a story about a time when Uncle Don needed blood and Aunt Martha donated some to him. When he awoke from the operation, he asked where the blood had come from. No one would tell him. He persisted and demanded to know where the blood had come from. No one would give in to his demand. He insisted that they tell him where the blood had come from. Finally, before answering, they asked him why.
"Because I have this strange urge to ride a camel!" he declared.
To most of you, that's not terribly funny or interesting. Unless you know that Aunt Martha has a huge love of all things middle-eastern, especially camels. She has camel statues, camel pins, camel stationary, camel stamps and camel clothing. To us, the story was classic Uncle Don. It was a story about two great storytellers, and you didn't know whether to believe it or not. But in the end, no one really cared if it was a true story or not because it was the power of the story to help heal our pain that mattered.
There are millions of stories happening around us every day, and it's unfortunate that we're too busy or too self-absorbed to take notice of them. Myself, I try to stop and listen to as many stories as possible because you never know when you'll learn something from someone and the story they have to tell. You may think you have more important things to do. You may think that the story has no relevance to your life. But trust me when I say that everything you do and everything you share with other people is precious and important.
Uncle Don, though no longer with us, lives on through the stories he told people and the stories that they tell about him.