Stories

107049-ALB-004I can only tell you a few things about this picture. It’s my father, Charlie, and my grandmother, Josephine. It’s in, or around, or after World War 2. I like to think it’s after. They have big smiles on. Honest smiles. Uncomplicated smiles. So I might be able to find out otherwise, from my Aunt Dodie, my father’s one surviving sibling, but I might decide he’s home from the war. He survived. They both can breath a sigh of relief.

My grandmother can breathe two, in fact, because she had two boys survive the war. They both came home–my dad from the Pacific and my Uncle Joe from Europe. My dad was a tail gunner in B17s and flew, according to what I learned, 22 combat missions. My Uncle Joe was in the Battle of the Bulge. I am pretty sure I have those right.

So that’s it. They were heroes, and they came home.

Aside from their big, happy smiles, it’s not a very good picture. I scanned it as is. It’s kind of blurry. It’s cropped all wrong. My dad is edging out of the picture to the right, and almost half the picture is uninteresting. Dirt under their feet, some modest bushes, and a modest house behind. Maybe that was their house–their apartment really. They would have been living in East Boston at the time. It looks a little too spread out for East Boston, though. Maybe they were visiting somewhere. Maybe it was a party for my dad and his brother.

Stories remind me that memories are imperfect. Several times a week I find myself recalling or telling a story, and then telling myself I should write that story. When I am telling it, the story comes out in whole, or at least it feels whole. I then fail to remember most of the stories I just told.If I do remember to try to tell them, I am confronted with the imperfection of my memory.

My wife and I were visiting dear friends in upstate New York this weekend. They have a teenage daughter, and all five of us enjoy each other’s company. We took two long walks in their woods. We ate meals together. We sat together. And we told stories.

Let’s see. I can remember telling the following stories (and it’s only Tuesday after the weekend):

  • I told the story of when a bat broke up a romantic encounter (this is a story I have written about, twice, and would like to commit to something well written)
  • I talked about the New Bedford waterfront when I lived there, talking to a fishing boat captain, and about how fish are auctioned off and processed right there at the docks. I mused that maybe that processing might not happen there anymore.
  • I talked about my second great-grandfather fighting and dying in India.
  • I talked about what a terrible student I was in high school, about the food fights, and about driving this one teacher, Mr. Cyr, crazy, despite his best efforts to tame me. (I recall now that another teacher told me, during that year, the teachers had met to discuss how to deal with me. I took it as the highest kind of praise at the time.)

I believe–and I believe this is backed up by research–that the stories we tell ourselves help us frame our reality. The story about the romantic encounter reminds me that I was always crazy about girls and was always in pursuit of them, often in vain. The fishing stories remind me that I liked–and continue to like–gritty urban landscapes. The story about my second great-grandfather reminds me that family is important to me, and family stories perhaps just as important. The high school story, well that makes me cringe and laugh at once. Today they would know to medicate me and send me to therapy; in 1975, those weren’t part of the ready arsenal of the public schools.

I also know that not all stories will find their way to paper. The stories, well, they might not be all that good. I might not remember enough about them. I might not develop enough of an underlying message or convey an important understanding. Either of those would render them uninteresting. Mainly, I might not remember enough. I remember the bat, and I remember the cute girl running from it. I know that I left for school soon thereafter and I never spoke to her again. I don’t remember, though, what she wearing that evening, or how she wore her hair, or much of anything about what we talked about, and we talked about a great deal. I probably told her a lot of stories.

The picture above presents even more challenges. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t born yet. If it was 1945. I wouldn’t be born until 14 years later. My father would be a very different man by then. (If it was 1945, he would have been only 19, nearly four years younger than my younger son. That simple fact makes me stop, and if I stopped long enough I would probably cry.) He was 19 years old, already a war veteran, even though he only reached his full height after enlisting at 17. He could have even reached that full height when he was over the Pacific somewhere.

Maybe that’s the story. A young man at war, quite literally halfway around the world, flying over that giant ocean, his gloved hands on that ball turret gun. He would be scanning the skies, looking for Japanese fighter planes. He would aim that gun and try to shoot them down. Then, somewhere in his not-too-distant future, he would be back home in East Boston. He would be standing on the ground, smiling that big smile, his arm around his mother. It would be his brother taking the picture, and before my father took his turn taking the next picture of his brother and his mom, he would have leaned down, kissed her on the top of her downy white head. “I’m home, Ma,” he would have told her. “I’m home.”

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