I love telling and listening to stories. It comes from inventing ways to be noticed in a household where four generations attempted to grow up at the same time. Our two family home was the headquarters for hungry friends, neighbors and relatives who visited every Sunday in swarms. There were bottomless bottles of bourbon, scotch and rye whiskey. There was lamb barley soup, brisket, lumpy mashed potatoes with brown gravy, crusty breads from Brooklyn, homemade cole slaw, vegetables, salad, and Jell-O molds, followed by triple layer all chocolate cake, cake resembling a twelve inch cheese Danish, ice cream, coffee, tea, and chocolate egg creams for the children made with Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer from a syphon bottle. In this house, food was love. But mostly, I remember the noise. What started out as a drone rose to shouts, shrieks and bellows as family and guests all spoke at the same time.
Great Uncles and Aunts told classic family stories embellished and distorted beyond reality. In the retelling stories grew to mythic proportions and we believed them. There was the story about Uncle Harry who worked for my Great Grandfather at a ship outfitting store at the turn of the last century near South Street in New York. No one ever explained why the sailors thought Harry was a doctor, but they did. And when a merchant marine came to the store drunk and presented Harry with a hangnail, my uncle cut off the sailor’s finger. Uncle Leonard, one of my great heroes, was raised in New York City. He moved to Washington D.C. just before World War II and became a taxi driver and tour guide.
Lenny-the-Hack had a devoted following of people who came back year after year for his informative tours. When I discovered Lenny made the whole thing up I was appalled and elated; appalled because of his lack of integrity and elated because of his creativity. I was the one who caught him. One spring when I was about eight years old, I visited Lenny at the nation’s capital and accompanied him on a bus tour. He was the guide.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he sang in a convincing southern accent in front of the Washington Monument. “Count up fourteen stones and two over. That stone was carved by hand in the great state of Wisconsin by a man named Horowitz. It weighs exactly sixteen thousand four hundred eighty-nine and three quarter pounds.”
I went back again when I was nine. Lenny had his customers count up fourteen stones and two over. This time the stone was brought from the great state of Montana and was carved by a man named O’Reilly.
Those may have been the good old days. But, nothing so grand ever happened around me when I was a boy. So, I reinvented my family. Dad ran a foundry making shells for the war effort during World War II. On the side, he sold life insurance. The man worked very hard to support four generations. I loved my father and I know he loved me. however, it wasn’t enough for this creative adventurer. I turned my father into a gangster and a crusader for human rights. First, I recreated him as a journalist whose dreams were broken when textile unionists destroyed his printing presses and his heart after he ran a union busting editorial. Later, I fantasized Dad as the leader of a gang of Robin Hood thieves who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. I believed my lies were far more interesting than the truth. I told my tales with great conviction and often defended them against my friends who recognized my embellishments. On the other hand, they often asked me to tell them stories. As an adult, I realized the lies kept me from really knowing a great man. He was a major influence in my life and a colorful steller himself.
There is solace in the thought that lying is instinctive rather than learned. For children, there is only the vaguest dividing line between true and false reporting. Truth is a moral concept which needs to be taught. George Steiner said, ‘…alternity is the greatest of man’s tools, by far. With this stick, he has reached out of the cage of instinct to touch the boundaries of the universe and time.” Creating alternative worlds can help me cope with and understand reality. Someone once claimed that storytelling is the lie which tells the truth.
(To be Continued)