should grampas keep telling their stories?
Rocco was sitting in the middle of the table surrounded by his three grandsons, two daughters and their husbands. His Chicago daughter had chosen the restaurant in Little Italy for his eighty-second birthday celebration. Unusually subdued that evening, he was not leading the conversational gambits, telling stories, teasing. It was the menu that had taken him back, got him remembering. Spaghetti alla Vongole. Suddenly, it was like his hearing aids had died. The grandkids chattered, muffled and distant, while he rode on the train to Fregene for a day at the beach away from classes in Rome’s early spring heat, a quick break from studies for final exams before returning home from his semester abroad.
Funny how his memory worked. He pictured the train ride with three of his classmates but not who the guys were, nor where the train station was, or how they got there…bus or walking. Other disjointed images flashed in full color, like an old-fashioned slide show, behind his half-shuttered eyes. A woman in a string bikini stood on a balcony next to the street. So jarring after a long winter of dark woolen coats and muffled scarves, hurrying down high walled, cobble stone streets reverberating with foreign lectures and snarling Lambrettas until he remembered he was in a beach town and the lady was in a cottage alongside the Tyrrhenian Sea. Which was why he was there, to bake on the fresh-groomed strand and absorb the low rolling thrum of gentle waves working their way onto shore. An hour later he began to wonder why a man, strangely wearing a wool winter coat, was walking backwards in the waist-deep water dragging something parallel to the shore.
When the man began working his way in, Rocco had gone to check him out. Turned out he had been dragging a net shaped like a ten-foot sock that funneled down to the toe. It was bulging with shiny little clams, vongole, which he had dredged from the seafloor and had shortly become their dinner in the shoreside restaurant where he had massaged bare feet on the cool marble floor before tucking into an unforgettable plate of spaghetti alla vongole.
“Grampa, pass the bread sticks, please,” sixteen-year old Mario requests. “And what’s vongole?”
He saw several faces look up, anticipating one of his excursions into family lore with emphasis on his personal experience. He caught a couple of sidelong glances and smiles. Were they setting him up, humoring him on his birthday, giving the old man a chance to hold forth. He didn’t usually need a prompt or an excuse. Instead of sitting on a mountain top like a guru cocooned in his own counsel, he often rushed downhill to share his wisdom willy-nilly, often unasked and, as he lately observed, not always graciously accepted. This time he decided to try something different, to hold back, to eschew his bygone stories from ‘the days of the giants.’
“Vongole are clams, Mario. Small. Maybe the size of a quarter.” he answered and stopped there.
The boy shook his head, wincing. “And they make spaghetti sauce with them? Eww.”
The grandfather nodded slowly and slid back to his fugue state at the seashore, his recollections like the clam digger’s handful of glistening shells that the waves of time had isolated by filtering out the connecting silt and sand. Moments. Sparkling moments. He had taught creative writing, encouraging students to ‘show…don’t tell.’ To engage the reader with vivid details, carefully chosen to immerse them in the scene. But that’s a scene imagined, not lived. Big difference. When involved with life, recounting his life, there was so much context he couldn’t completely share. Could anyone recreate a personal event for someone else? His father talked about the boat ride that brought him and his parents across the Atlantic. He would share words but the way his eyes unfocused, just a little in the telling, it was clear that he was seeing much more than he was saying. How could he share the whole experience? We’re all like mimes locked in our own bubble, unable to tell all we know.
So, why bother, he wondered? Why did he think his particular experiences were so unique that they demanded to be shared? Did he have a life mission to regale his family with his legends as if they were aboriginals huddled around a campfire yearning for their tribal creation story—how they came to be, in the now.
He looked around the table, smiling at his beautiful people and wondering why he felt the need to regularly, at the slightest connection, launch into, ‘this reminds me,’ monologues. Okay, upon occasion some of his verbal documentaries were welcome, even requested. And at times there really was wisdom to be shared—a learning moment for the young ones. But, lately he was coming to realize that whatever experience he was recounting, just because it happened to him, might not have any interest or relevance for his offspring. There’s a place for storytelling. There’s also a place for keeping your own counsel.
At that moment, on his eighty-second birthday, as a memory keeper timing-out, Rocco realized that it would be okay to forego reporting every stray recollection and link to the past; that his offspring shouldn’t be expected to live in thrall to the ‘legend in his own mind.’ As if their lives could never measure up to the importance of his. After all, they needed to devote time to making their own memories not reliving his.
While it’s said, ‘you can’t take it with you,’ Rocco had to admit that he would have to take his hoard of backstory memories with him. Some data is non-transferable. It was his grandfather, a WWII veteran, who when asked to explain what it was like, replied, ‘If you were there, I don’t need to tell you. If you weren’t, there’s no way to describe it.”
So, as he twirled a fork through a tangle of his spaghetti alla vongole, he decided to back off from his posture as the self-styled oracle who drags his net of memories through the bubbling surf of time to be cosseted, fondled and savored while the intended beneficiaries of his largesse neither know what vongole are nor share a taste for the concoction they flavor.