Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shaggy Dog Stories

After my aunt’s service last week, the family went out for dinner.  It had been something like fifteen years since I had seen so many uncles, aunts, cousins and second cousins all in the same place at the same time, what with them living on the East Coast and me living in California.  Amid all the reminders of what a funny, warm and deeply affectionate group they are, one fact emerged most clearly, and for me, it was as much a revelation of one of my own personality quirks as it was insight into family dynamics:  We are a family of storytellers.  And every bit as much as we love to tell a good story, we love to hear one.

When I share information with my colleagues, I prefer to do so in story form.  Not that I make things up or over-dramatize, but that I like to allow the information to unfold as it was presented to me, complete with dialogue and description of tone and facial expression.  After all, if you don’t know how a fact was communicated, how can you know the full import of the information?  Over the past year, I’ve become aware that not all of my colleagues appreciate this degree of painting the picture.  I think the major tip-off was the day I was recounting an altercation between students to the two colleagues with whom I work most closely.  One listened with concern and attention.  The other suddenly rolled his eyes and said, with an exasperated tone, “Oh, my god, the detail!”  It’s not like I’d gone on and on for minutes on end.  And it had been a pretty intense moment between these students.  Nonetheless, I have since practiced to report the facts and nothing but the facts.  I feel like I’m wearing a straight-jacket.  Or like I’ve lost half the colors from my palette.

But now I know where this penchant for storytelling arose; I credit my dad’s side of the family.  As we sat in the restaurant, and even earlier during the post-service reception, heck, even during the service itself, stories flowed.  They spooled out as naturally as our dark brown hair is trending towards grey.  Just as often as someone would say, “Let me tell you…,” he or she would turn to someone else and say, “Tell the one about…,” then sit back to enjoy the hearing all over again. 

I remember that my Uncle Charlie was always a wonderful storyteller, able to see the absurd in the every day and to relate an event with a certain sardonic disbelief that reduced us kids to peals of laughter.  He retains that gift.

The conversation inevitably rolled around to stories of my grandparents.  “I’ll never forget,” said Charlie, “the time the whole family went out to lunch and forgot me at home.  He paused.  “Shoot,” he added, as he looked around the room full of people who had gathered for his sister’s memorial service, “there’s no one here who would remember that story anymore.”  One Thanksgiving, he went on, his grandparents came to take the family out to lunch.  With eight people to transport, four kids, two parents and two grandparents, they had to take two cars.  In the flurry of getting out the door, six-year-old Charlie was left behind.  He crawled under the dining room table, his only companion Bumpy the Boston Terrier, and listened to the silence.  Turning to Bumpy, he put his hands on either side of the dog’s face and looked deep into his bulging eyes.  “Oh, Bumpy,” he moaned.  “They don’t love us anymore.” 

Of course, as soon as they arrived at the restaurant and the adults realized that each thought Charlie was in the other car, they hightailed it back home to rescue him.  The image that sticks with Charlie, though, is of sitting underneath the table with Bumpy.

How often do dogs lighten our loads?  My heart aches as I think of that tiny boy clinging to his dog as he sought sanctuary in the darkness of the tablecloth fort.  To recast the scene without Bumpy is to multiply the desolation a thousand-fold. 

"C'mon!  Let's play!"
There is a student at school, Jane, who spends every spare moment with Cleo.  If she has an extra five minutes between classes, she is in my office.  Every lunch period—my office with Cleo.  Tutorial periods—you guessed it.  After school?  You get the picture.  She will toss a ball as many times as Cleo will run after it.  She will play Tug-of-War, Chase, Hide-and-Seek for hours on end.  She will sit and let Cleo lounge all over her until her legs lose feeling.  She is endlessly patient, teaching Cleo tricks like Close the Door and Look Pretty.  When she isn’t with Cleo, she spends (probably far too much) time on YouTube learning how to teach tricks or researching dogs for the moment she gets to have her own.  She is a wealth of information on a wide variety of breeds and their characteristics.  Her parents, sadly, but most likely appropriately, won’t let her have a dog.  She pines for one of her own.

The other day, Jane was in my office at the end of the day, as usual.  She said, “I saw you and Cleo up on the field after lunch today.”

“Oh, yeah?” I responded.  “From the Latin classroom?”

“Yeah.  It was scary!  I saw Mr. K tearing around in his cart up there, too, doing something on the field.”

“He was measuring for the new striping.”

“Well, I think it’s okay that I was a little distracted from Latin.  I mean, I wasn’t sure if my best friend was going to get run over by a—“  She went completely silent.  Then she laughed.  “That sounds really lame,” she giggled, her cheeks reddening. 

“Your best dog friend,” I suggested.

“Right, right,” she agreed, still giggling.  Then added with the slightest breath of sarcasm, “That’s exactly what I meant.”

I know what she meant.  Some day, sixty-some years from now, though there will be no one left who remembers the story, she will begin, “Once, I knew a Bedlington Terrier named Cleo.”  And she will relate the way that many licks of the face and a fuzzy head tucked under the chin helped her make it through her teenage years.

Cleo and friend

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