These Worlds We Hold: Memory and the Role of Storytelling

 

My great-uncle’s full name was Verdon Ganger, but everyone called him Bud. By the time I knew him, Bud was a soft-spoken widower in his 80s, who kept an immaculate garden and took a keen interest in the birds that nested in his backyard. As a little girl, I never bothered to think of him in terms beyond that. Like all the others who entered my little sphere of life, I imagined him coming into existence at the same moment I did, like the opening of a story; I, of course, was the main character, and he one of the many relatives given to populate my story. Personally, I think we’re all born with that view of the world, which life gradually jolts out of us. I remember playing at my grandma’s house, sliding ponderously down her staircase, one carpeted step at a time—thump, thump, thump—with the inexplicable delight all kids get from such a pastime.

I paused, looking at the black and white photograph on the wall, seeing it—actually seeing it—for the first time.

“Mom? Mom, who are those people?”

“That’s Grandma and her family. Now quit doing that to the stairs—you’ll wear down the carpet.”

“Grandma?” I pressed my face closer to the glass. “Where?”

“Right there. See, her name is written above her. Betsy.”

I stared at the young teenager she was pointing to and felt my tiny world suffer one of those disconcerting jolts. Grandma…as Betsy? Grandma before her Grandma-ness? I scanned the other strangers’ faces, most of them long-gone by this time: Homer, Ruby, Deca, Chet, Bud…

Bud?

I looked again at the other name I recognized, squinting studiously at the face. Grandma I could, with effort, recognize. He was harder. His expression, his eyes, they were…different. Defiant, I might have said. Assertive. If I knew at that point what either of those words meant.

I continued thumping my way down the stairs, wondering vaguely why Bud, in another, nearby picture, was wearing a uniform.

In January of 1942, Verdon Ganger was drafted to serve in the Second World War. He was nineteen years old when he left, and he wouldn’t see home again until the war ended in ’45. While overseas, he would fight in North Africa and Sicily, land on Utah Beach four days after the initial D-Day invasion, and fight through the Battle of the Bulge, all without ever being wounded.

I learned this story in pieces, as I gradually became old enough to understand it. Only a little bit of it was told by him—I remember listening to him tell a few stories, once—but more of it was from the people who knew him: my dad, my grandma, my uncle. During the war, Uncle Bud carried a BAR for his squad (despite not being a big guy), threatened to kill his Sergeant for kicking him in the head while he slept, and went flying off his dispatch motorcycle when a German 88 blew up the road right in front of him (he and the bike were both fine). He watched huge flights of B-17s fly over Europe on their way to Germany, and served as a flag bearer at Yalta, where he saw Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin.

I was now getting to the age in which I realized I was not the main character of the world, and it was still surreal for me to hear about Bud and the other members of my Grandma’s immediate family, most of whom I had never met. I looked a lot at that old family photograph. With Gram, I could now recognize something of her personality in that slight smile, those bright eyes. With Bud, it was still much harder. Perhaps it was simply because I didn’t know him as well, but there didn’t seem to be the same connection between Bud and his past self as there was between my Grandma and her past self.

My dad asked Bud once: with all the time he’d spent fighting in the war, how was it that he’d never been promoted?

Bud gave a sheepish smile. “I was a very different man, then. I had a bit of a temper.”

One of my most distinct memories of my great-uncle was when I went to visit him with my grandma. I was in my early teens, and having recently heard the stories about his war experience, I was somewhat in awe of him. He was a war hero, a legend. Grandma and I took him a pie we had made together (I think it was apple), and as the three of us sat together in his kitchen, he told us two stories: one about chasing away some neighborhood kids who were tearing up a sapling and bothering the robins in his backyard, and another about rescuing a little hummingbird that had stunned itself flying into his window.

“It was very still,” he told me quietly, leaning in closer. “I wasn’t sure if it was even alive, but I sat outside and held it in my hand for a while, stroking its back. Eventually, it perked up. We sat there for a bit, and then it finished gathering its wits and took off.” He smiled, thoughtfully, mildly. “It was so small, I could barely tell I was holding anything.”

When we got back to Grandma’s house, I stared at her family photograph for a good long while. I suppose I could picture him holding a hummingbird, provided I tried very hard.

I never knew my great-uncle as well as I wish I had. I only saw him a couple of times a year; he had his own kids and grandkids, I my own grandparents and aunts and uncles. He died when I was eighteen, and I found myself regretting that I hadn’t used the time better. It’s fitting, I think, that we tell stories at funerals. It feels like a sort of last chance, a final toss from the older generation to the new, reminding us about the people who came before. I came away surprised by how little I had known—and a little shocked by how suddenly I had lost the chance to directly learn more. I could still listen to stories, but that was all I would have. I went back to look at the photograph again, discomforted. That night, I wrote the following in my journal: “When I heard he died, I felt perplexed, as though I’d heard he had faded into the old photo and been swallowed up by the fierce young man.”

“It was strange when he came back from the war,” my Grandma said when I asked her about him. “I had changed a lot in those years, and so had he. He seemed so grown-up, it almost made me shy. But he was still ornery—he used to coax me into going for rides on his motorcycle. I would say, ‘no, you drive too fast,’ and he would tell me ‘come on, Bets; I’ll take it nice and easy.’ Then he’d take the turns so quickly the thing nearly laid on its side.” She laughed. “The honyock.”

I wondered about all the stories he didn’t tell. As my dad said, you wanted to know about his war experience, but you didn’t want to pry. The family knew that he had won a Bronze Star during the War, though my dad and his siblings didn’t know the story of how. After he died, his kids looked for it in his belongings. They found five of them.

Last semester, I took a history course on the two World Wars. The course came with an unexpected consequence: it broke my naive perception that Uncle Bud’s generation was part of a mythic, historic group of people who knew where history was headed, or knew that they would one day tell stories to their grand-niece. As I watched documentaries, read accounts, and looked over maps, it dawned on me that there was no true narrative of the war. Everything I read was simply an attempt to make sense of the chaotic mess that was the most massive conflict in human history. I realized, suddenly, that my great-uncle faced all of this horrific bloodshed—all of which took place before he had reached the age of twenty-three—without any sense of certainty. He hadn’t known if he would make it out of North Africa or Sicily, or if the D-Day invasion would actually work, or if the “Battle of the Bulge” would instead end as “the encircled pocket of Allied troops surrender to the Germans.” Fighting for as long as he had, without ever being wounded, was almost a statistical impossibility. Time had passed for him just as it did for me, and he had no more understanding of the “big picture” than I do of the history books that will be written forty years from now. It was surreal, but as I tried to understand the events, I felt a bizarre connection with this young man I had never known, because of the few stories his older self had shared, and because of the stories his loved ones had told about him.

I’m currently reading the Odyssey in my Greek Mythology class, and one of the themes we’re looking at is the epic’s portrayal of storytelling. Odysseus is famous for his ability to craft narratives; throughout the epic, he gives dozens of accounts of himself, both true and untrue. Likewise, his son, Telemachus, learns about his absent father through the stories others tell of him. But the Odyssey, while elevating the power of storytelling, also acknowledges its limits. It’s interesting to me that Odysseus, the master storyteller, tells all sorts of stories about his wanderings…but not about his time at Troy. He speaks freely about his journeys; he asks the bard to sing of the Trojan War. Equally interesting is his account of the sirens and their overwhelmingly enticing song. Of what, exactly, do the sirens sing?

Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’s pride and glory—

moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!

Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft

until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips,

and once he hears to his heart’s content sails on, a wiser man.

We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured

on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—

all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

 

The sirens know the full story—not only of Troy, but of “all that comes to pass on the fertile earth.” They can express the inexpressible; they promise what no human being can ever know: the whole of the world’s story.

I focus on my great-uncle’s war service because war has the distinction of being incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to understand—especially by those who haven’t experienced it firsthand. But in a sense, the same is true of all human lives. No human can know the whole; we can only glimpse through our own little part. That’s why we tell stories—to share our pieces as best we can, collecting them up in an attempt to understand both ourselves and those around us. I knew my great-uncle as an old man. But I also knew him through stories: his own, his sister’s (my Grandma), and his nephews’ (my dad and uncle). Because he was willing to tell them, and because others listened and passed them on, I got a glimpse of my family I would otherwise never have known about. And by continuing to tell these stories, I too become a part of that chain.

I try to remember to ask for these stories now—from my grandma, my parents, my siblings and friends. Tell me something from your memory. Tell me something that only exists inside you. A year ago, my Grandma sold the house she’d lived in for the past twenty-five years: the house that the grandkids grew up in, the house where Grandpa spent his final weeks. It had been there, faithfully, all my life, and then, in the course of several days’ packing, it was gone. That house exists as a thought-world now, carried around inside myself and fellow family members. Someday, I’ll probably tell my own kids about it, just like my grandma tells me about her old house on Dragoon Trail. It makes me wonder… The more modern idea of “storytelling” functions so much as a self-generated, inwardly-turned process: the writer broods, struggles, and produces his masterpiece. I don’t have anything against this idea of a writer, but I like the world of connections that swim around the older role of bard.

Tell us about the memory-worlds, bard. Take our stories, tell us others. Give us, as best you can, a bigger piece of the unattainable whole.

We are not all capable of being great writers, but we may all, in our own way, be bards.

 

Katie Davenport is a senior studying English and art. 

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