Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why We Tell the Story

Why is this night not like all other nights?

The significance of this question, posed at Passover Seders, cannot be overstated.

The question is an invitation to tell an essential story of faith history. Without the story of Gods intervention to liberate the children of Israel from a tyrannical pharaoh, it would be impossible to understand basic tenets of our relationship to God. The story reverberates throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. 

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the stories we tell one another. Without them, it would be difficult to define who we are. In his musical chronicling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda expresses the essential nature of story telling. 

f your family is anything like mine when it gathers for Easter dinner, there will be more oral tradition served up at the table than ham. Tales will be told, stories will be spun, family memories will be deconstructed, analyzed, and exaggerated. There will be someone – in my house it’s me – who will repeat stories told many times before, often with different emphases or surprisingly different endings. Much of this discourse will take place with the understanding that the truth should never get in the way of a good story, and for the most part, it wouldn’t matter anyway. No matter how the stories are told, they always bring us closer to understanding who we are – and what God expects of us.

My paternal grandfather Addison was austere and perhaps a little authoritarian. My mother was politely reserved in his presence, and I’ve wondered if she wasn’t a little afraid of him. Mom lived with her in-laws during the Second World War when Dad was in the South Pacific and she worked for a war materiel plant near Oneonta, but few stories emerged from that period of her life. 

Grandpa may have been a little severe in the presence of adults, but I remember him as a warm and doting presence – and a great story teller. He could describe Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox with such clarity I could see the out-sized duo trampling through the Catskills, and of course I thought at the time the tales originated with him. On the surface, Paul Bunyan lore had little to do with who I was or what God expected of me. On the other hand, I’ll never forget sitting on a bench behind my grandparents’ house, watching the conspiratorial crinkles around his hazel eyes as he spoke so quietly only I could hear him. It set the context for my existence that has lasted all my life.

As my siblings and I grew up in Central New York, we were immersed in fables from both sides of the family. Our mother, Mary Emerson, traced her ancestry to an Emerson who held an important but imprecisely described position as “George Washington’s body guard,” and a generation later we find Ralph Waldo Emerson sitting transcendentally on a branch of the family tree. I can’t document either claim, although Mom always said that when she visited Emerson’s Old Manse, she saw pictures of relatives on the wall that were identical to tin-type portraits preserved by her father. 

On the Jenks side, there were royal governors, iron works operators, revolutionary war soldiers and – judging from the fact that several Jenks graves in the cemetery in Oneonta have no recorded death dates – possibly a vampire or two. There are literally hundreds of stories emanating from these traditions, and no doubt many of them will be retold this Thanksgiving, as will many Cruz and Montes reminiscences from Cuba. All of these stories are important because they are essential glimpses into who we are, and what God expects us to do.

As I commence my eighth decade, there is one story I can’t get out of my head – a story of my father’s participation in World War II. Like most post-war baby boomers, the war had an incalculable impact on my formative years. My father’s life was changed forever by what he experienced in the Buna Mission New Guinea campaign. And, a priori, so was mine.

When I was growing up in Morrisville, most of the dads I knew were veterans. Dee Cramer was in the Navy, Taze Huntley was in the D-Day invasion, Jack Irwin was a teen-age tank gunner in Europe, Del McKee was a marine. At one time or another they were all surrogate fathers to the boomers whose diapers they were changing, and they had another thing in common: they never talked about the war. They acted like the slaughter hadn’t the slightest effect on them.

A few years ago I tried to tell their story in doggerel, focusing on my father’s worst memories:
Now Dad himself is on patrol near Buna late at night. 
He hears grunts, the startled farting of a Japanese patrol 
And a silhouetted figure looms with menace in his sight. 
“I.D. yourself, goddammit,” says my father, sick in soul, 
The answer sounds like leather on the muzzle of a gun. 
Dad feels the vomit in his throat and closes both his eyes. 
He doesn’t see the flash of his concussing Tommy Gun. 
The silhouette collapses with a gasp of sharp surprise. 
It was too dark to see so Dad crumpled to the ground 
And hugged the Tommy to his face and felt the muzzle’s heat. 
The jungle now was quiet and the only human sound 
Was the ghastly, gurgled groaning of that silhouetted heap. 
Dad pulled the Tommy closer and tried hard to close his ears 
The terrible moaning ebbed and flowed throughout the endless night. 
Dad thought of Oneonta and the sweetly passing years 
Of youth, and closed his eyes against the coming of new light. 
When the grayness of the dawn came he opened both his eyes 
And saw the Japanese teen-ager, chalky white and still. 
His blood had leaked throughout the blackest night and now he lies, 
An abandoned, empty shell. He was Dad’s first war-time kill. 
The teen-ager was gut shot. He died in agonizing 
Misery. His face was youthful and unlined, even pretty, 
But all Dad saw was an enemy uncompromising 
In his love for Hirohito. Dad killed him without pity, 
Though now as he beheld this human carcass drained of blood, 
It was hard to ignore the common bond of humanity 
He shared with this dead stranger pacified inside the mud. 
The war was a metastasis of insanity.

Dad never told anyone all the details of this story. I don’t know if it would have helped him if he had. His friend and pastor, Jack Irwin, the teen-age tank gunner in Germany, wrote an entire book about his experiences, Another River, Another Town (Random House, 2002), and I think the experience was cathartic for him. But even more important, telling the story is essential to opening the door to some of life’s great mysteries: Who am I? Where did I come from? What does God expect me to do? And what does my life mean to others who share my space?

Dad’s World War II story, which he recorded in his diary (now online), is horrendous, as were the stories of millions who shared this terrible experience. After the war, Dad led an ordinary life. He married, had five kids, taught high school, worshipped at the United Church of Morrisville, joined the Lion’s Club, and marched on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day with his fellow legionnaires. 

Ordinary enough. Yet I suspect hardly a day passed that he didn’t think of that incident on Buna. It changed him forever. And, in ways we scarcely noticed, it affected his marriage and his children. The story of Buna is one of the building blocks of who we are, without which our knowledge of ourselves would be forever incomplete. And that is why we tell the story.

There is a beautiful musical that has spent too little time on Broadway, Once on This Island. Son Will and daughter Victoria have each appeared in different school renditions of the show. It’s the story of a little Haitian peasant girl, TiMoune, who dies following a star-crossed love affair with Daniel, a rich man’s aristocratic son. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Little Mermaid, it is full of beauty, passion, pain and death. In many respects, it’s a metaphor of life. And despite its painful elements, it is a story that must be told. In the final act, following TiMoune’s death, the company dances and sings:

We tell the story
We tell the story!

Life is why
We tell the story
Pain is why
We tell the story
Love is why
We tell the story
Grief is why
We tell the story
Hope is why
We tell the story
Faith is why
We tell the story
You are why
We tell the story
Why we tell the story
Why we tell the story
Why we tell the story

When God ordered the angel of death to passover Jewish households, a story was born: the story of God’s infinite power over evil and God’s commitment to love us unconditionally and to protect us from evil. When we hear these stories, we gain new insight into the primordial stew from which we sprang. We discover who we are. And in that discovery, we are given a great gift: to choose hope and faith and God’s own path for our lives.

And in many cases, those stories offer hints as to the unrestrained ways we might celebrate that gift: 

Then the prophet Miriam, Aarons sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.
And Miriam sang to them:
Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:20-21)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this with me. Beautiful, poignant, important.