My father always told us stories about his mother and sister who both died long before I was born. They weren’t just glowing ultra edited eulogies, these stories–he showed their flaws with a touch of humor, alluded to their individual histories of grief. Only when I was writing about it and feeling the sadness of writing about him did I really realize what the gift of sharing his loved ones with me must have cost him–and what, in turn, my listening gave him. It is an important tradition to tell the stories of the people who are gone.
Goodbyes are something folks in my groups struggle with a lot. Last week we did a storytelling prompt, one of my favorites. We used an excerpt from Joel Chasnoff’s brilliant war memoir, The 188th Crybaby Brigade.
I am Israeli soldier number 5481287. I’ve been assigned to Platoon Two, Company B, Battalion 71 of the 188th Armored Brigade. I’m at the Armored School, in the south, halfway between Jordan and Egypt. It’s the 30th day of July, day one of basic training, and I’m in shock that I’m actually here, in uniform, on a military base, a soldier in a foreign country’s army.
I’m dressed like a soldier but I look like a clown. My uniform’s three sizes too big, and it’s stiff, so it looks like I’m wearing a suit of green construction paper; I’d thought I’d look sexy in uniform, but I don’t. I’ve also got a new look–I’m buzz-cut and shaved–and a new name: instead of Joel, I am now my Hebrew name, Yoel, and my last name, according to my dog tags is Shetnitz.
“You misspelled my name,” I said to the guy at the dog tag machine.
“So don’t die,” he said, and shooed me out the door.
The thing about good storytelling is all the stuff that is implicitly communicated. The clues into your life and your experiences that a good listener can pick up. This excerpt is pretty straightforward, but there are layers. Here when he talks about how he expected to look sexy in the uniform, we are told how he feels out of place, what the purpose of this new role (and dog tags) is. Dog tags are serious. An acknowledgment of your vulnerability, of the danger of the world. We know what this young man is wrestling with–ideals of masculinity, fears about reality, and as someone in the group today pointed out, the stripping away of identity central to basic training. I think that happens quite naturally when we write with a focus on being specific, it’s nothing we have to force. He says it without a hint of poor me. But we think, That must have been difficult.
There’s a section in the book that I really like to use where he does a short sketch of each of the guys in the unit so you know all the players. The people who shaped us are a part of us. When we speak their stories aloud, they rise up and join us in the room, and the people we are sharing them with know us and our experiences a little better. We introduce the people we love through stories all the time. I’m always so glad when I mention a friend from faraway to a local friend and they respond with, “Oh your friend Brian who declared psychological warfare on the neighbors in 9th grade?” (that’s right, Brian, I talk about you).
Your prompt is to sketch out some of the people you know best–dead or alive, near or far, close or estranged. We came up with some questions to get you going:
1. What were they like when they get angry?
2. What always made them mad or always made them laugh?
3. What was your first impression of them/how did you meet?
4. What was their ‘tell’ in poker or pranks? Could they keep a straight face?
5. How do they sleep? (The group assured me this is NOT a creepy question, I think in the realm of deployment it’s not, but if you’re just sneaking around watching people sleep, that’s definitely creepy)
6. What really embarrassing song was their jam?
7. What were some of their unique habits/superstitions?
Tell us about one time when they…
(Bonus points…how would someone close answer the above about you?)
I hope this prompt makes you smile, in spite of what it may cost you. And I hope you tell the story at whatever table you sit at to eat turkey this week, and that when you tell the story, someone you miss will be near for a moment. And someone who is near will understand you a little better.
Happy Thanksgiving, my dears. I am eternally grateful for you–for trusting me with your stories and for listening to mine. For all the laughing through tears we do together. Be well. Send me poems (or cans of jellied cranberries).