By Valerie Dunn
As the semester spirals to a finish filled with deadlines, I dream of reading a book by the fire. Such was my intent over Thanksgiving break as I packed my car with laundry, homework, and a few good reads. However, when I returned home only to find that my family would be hosting turkey dinner, my reading plans quickly vanished. Reading with family piled around the living room is not only rude, it’s impossible. I therefore resigned myself, curled up in a ball after too much pie, to spend my Thanksgiving afternoon napping I couldn’t read. This too proved impossible as my aunts chatted noisily over a rowdy baby. I nearly emerged from my blanket to complain, but something stopped me and instead, I listened.
At least three conversations occurred at once, overlapping and interweaving into a familiar quilt. One aunt bragged about how many ways she could set a dinner table. One aunt reminded us of her first husband. My uncle lectured my brother about hard times. My cousin explained the labors of finding the perfect purse for her mom. From my position under the blanket, I couldn’t tell who was listening to whom or, for that matter, if anyone listened at all. But I did. I found myself transfixed by the oral tradition of my family.
A gentle art dictates the ebb and flow of conversation. We don’t claim to be storytellers, just characters. Not always dignified, our stories at least relate truth. We sacrifice coherence to unbridled laughter. We have our tradition. Coffee provides fuel for the tongue. Repetition can only improve the story. Exaggeration is truth. Eye-rolling marks a form of flattery. Grandma’s opinion finalizes as certainly as a punctuation mark.
I’ve heard these stories so many times I could recite them. Even the stories my flight attendant aunt tells aren’t particularly exotic. But they are honest. The stories spun around the dinner table resonate with humanity often lost in made up novels. I knew the characters my family conjured, and for that reason the stories struck me as very sincere. This table talk is not the literature I usually prefer, but it nevertheless impacts me. I feel I must know the past of my family to appreciate the present. Even if they are loud and often repetitive, my family tells the stories I cherish the most. Their words give me something to remember for those times when we cannot come together for the holidays.
So maybe Christmas Eve rolls around and you still haven’t found the perfect gift for Aunt Suzy. Save yourself the stress. Buy her a book and be done with it. But more importantly, take the time to listen to Aunt Suzy when she grabs you by the elbow to talk your ear off for a while. Chances are, the stories she wants to tell you are more interesting and valuable than the plot behind the day’s bestseller. Even if it is the fifth time you had to hear about Mr. Fluffy’s trip to the vet.