Wednesday, July 13, 2011


so much of life is about how you tell the story. it was a charcoal gray vw beetle from hawaii that got me thinking about it. but i should probably back up.

at the church we attended when i was a kid, we always sat in the same pew. always next to the same people, always behind the same people, always in front of the same people. every single sunday. always said hello, always shared the handshake of peace, every single sunday. but never once in all the years--my entire childhood, in fact--that we attended that church did i learn any of those people's names.

(i will pause here to allow you to reflect on the strangeness of that fact. my southern friends especially will find this inscrutable. someone told me once that people have two walls around them. for southerners, the first wall is very low, which is to say that it's easy to meet them and get to know them on a superficial level; it's not hard to get over that first wall. but the second wall, the one surrounding the real inner person, is much higher. whereas for northerners, the first wall is the insurmountable one; you just can't get in easily at all. we yankees don't say hi to strangers on the street, don't even know the names of the people we sit next to every single sunday for decades in church. but once you're past the very initial introduction, getting over the second wall, the one where you get to the real person, is much easier. be that as it may or may not, now it's time to get over the strangeness of this piece of my childhood lore because the strangeness of it is not what this post is about.)

this post is about storytelling. because the fact that we didn't know anything about any of the people we worshiped with every single sunday did not at all mean that we weren't curious. so we made up stories instead. we guessed at these people's lives: who they were, how they were related to each other, what they did all of the other 167 hours in their week. and in our conversations about them, since we didn't know their names, we made up names for them, too. the mafia family, the sausage lady, the little people--these were the (mostly unflattering) ways we referred to the people we sat with as we guessed at their stories. how were all those people in the mafia family related to each other, anyhow? why wasn't the husband of the little people couple in church two weeks in a row? was it possible that the sausage lady just didn't own a mirror? (putting these thoughts in writing doesn't make me particularly proud of them, come to think of it.)

the point--other than the fact that i am suddenly wondering what moniker my family and i earned and why and what stories were imagined about us--is that we naturally make up stories to fill in the gaps in our lives. we are, whether we realize it or not, constantly trying to make sense of life and our experiences by filling in details where they're lacking. which is what happened the other day when i found myself following a newish-looking charcoal gray vw beetle with a hawaiian license plate reading "ncduke." hmmm.

i made up some stories, none of which could i quite get to make sense. there are lots of details to fill in in such a circumstance, after all, unusual as it is to see a hawaiian car in north carolina. how did the car get here, anyway? and why? a student might have such a university-centric license plate, sure, but what kind of student is going to bring a car all the way from hawaii? instead, surely it was someone who had just moved here and thus shipped the car all the way. but could s/he have known s/he'd move to north carolina when s/he registered the car in hawaii? is this some far-flung cameron crazy who finally made it to the land of the blue? and the car looked very new, which meant it couldn't have resided in hawaii for long before coming to north carolina...anyhow, i just couldn't make the story make sense.

(another aside: if you'll indulge my curiosity and leave your version of the story in the comments, i'd be greatly obliged. maybe you'll figure it out more easily than i could.)

fast forward to later that night, when i found luke, who i supposed to be getting ready for bed, on the floor in tears. he didn't want at first to talk about what was wrong, but he finally did explain: "i just want to have a normal family." when i asked him why he thought our family wasn't normal, he said, "what kind of normal family has a dead sister?"

in retrospect, i am quite sure the combination of some old family photos he saw upstairs for the first time in a while with the fact that he had earlier in the day been telling a new friend about his sisters is what led him to end up in such a state. he tells his story very matter-of-factly: i used to have a sister named eliza, but she died. now i have another sister named anastasia. no big deal, or so you'd think to hear him tell it.

but that's a crazy story for a seven-year-old to have to tell. how does he fill in the gaps in his so-young, so-brilliant mind? how does he figure out the details that he cannot remember or never understood? and how will he tell the story over the course of his life, in a year or ten years or fifty years? how will he tell the story to anastasia, who will one day see those same family photos and wonder at the sister in the picture that she'll never know?

there are different kinds of stories, after all. and different versions of the same stories. there are stories we love to tell--stories of falling in love, of discovering five dollars in an old coat pocket, of the day we got a new puppy, of an exotic vacation. but there are stories we have to tell, too, even if we don't love to tell them. stories whose details are burned into our minds and whose gaps we can't help but fill...or sometimes can't bear to fill. sometimes, we can't but stick to the facts: that's a newish charcoal gray vw beetle with a hawaiian license plate reading "ncduke" here in the middle of north carolina. and that's all there is to say.


Meredith said...

Oh Daniele, please hug that sweet boy for me. I cannot imagine the story he tells himself about his life.

Love this post and remembering our names for people in church. Rest assured that Brad and I still do this up north at the Cathedral: we have the Protestants (our friends taught us that name for one couple--we aren't the only ones who do this!), the uber-Catholic family (8 kids, all about a year apart), and even our first priest at the Cathedral had a name for us, since he couldn't remember ours: the love birds. It's not always a bad thing to make up stories about people, if they are nice ones :-)

Hanna said...

The beetle riddle take one:
The car you saw and its license plate has been created for the sole purpose to puzzle and entertain people of the Triangle who will see said car with its license plate and scratch their heads just like you did.

Take two:
You didn't really see what you saw. Perhaps it was Florida instead of Hawaii, or something like that. ;-)

Take three:
The car belongs to a Duke Alumnus/-a from Hawaii, who has moved back to the Triangle for good and hasn't changed his/her license plate to a local one quite yet.