Gifts of Death and Time
Certain stories haunt us. They belong to us, and we to them. If they captivate us, we become, in fact, their captives. They haunt us until we agree to serve them, keeping them with us always, allowing them to appear in our minds whenever they like. This is because we are their only hope. Through proper retelling, it is possible to free them.
On any given day, there is a story living inside me that I don’t know what to do with. That’s what my life is. This is a gift and a curse from my father, who taught me to populate my mind with characters and vignettes from the lives of relatives and friends, mostly dead. During my childhood, the punch lines of countless jokes accumulated like barnacles curated from years of watching Jack Benny and George Burns and Gracie Allen on TV, and from the steam bath in the men’s locker room at Hillcrest Country Club in West Los Angeles, which my parents joined shortly after it was founded by and for the Jews that were barred from membership in Los Angeles’ other exclusive clubs. Hillcrest Country Club not only provided a truly great creamed spinach and coconut layer cake, it provided people to tell jokes with. My father would go to the club to play tennis, and the occasional reluctant round of golf, so he could sit in the steam room afterwards and swap jokes with the other sweating, paunchy Jewish men who were there for the same reason. At dinner that night, he’d regale my mother and me with his fresh repertoire. Telling other people’s stories was the lingua franca of my family. We practiced the strange intimacy of talking in story-code.
Because of these things, whenever something happens, whatever it is, I immediately associate it with something else, and even when nothing happens, a story appears, uninvited, and makes itself at home. I suspect many of us live this way (though we may not realize it) and if we sought each other out and spoke about what, or who, inhabits our minds, we’d realize we’re speaking for the dead. If we don’t like our own dead, there are plenty of others waiting to borrow us. They have something to say through us, and we, in turn, long for them. They keep us company. They help us see. We are literally looking through their eyes. Where else do our eyes come from? We inhale into their lungs. We chew with their teeth.
We breathe the air breathed by those that lived before – including the breath expended to tell stories. Perhaps our affinities for certain animals comes from inhaling their stories, their squawks and trumpets and whistles and roars. After all, it’s the same air breathed by the first elephants that lived 80 million years ago; the same air as the rhinos (65 million) and the leatherback turtles (125 million); and the first algae and bacteria, continuously alive for 3.4 billion years. We have all shared the same atmosphere, the same water, the same soil, since the beginning. Let’s not kid ourselves. We not only walk with the dead, we are the dead. Dead women and dead men walking, talking, and telling stories.