Sunday dinners were a big tradition in our family. My father was the one who did the cooking – my mother, not one to put much stock in such domestic tasks, would rather, as she once famously said, have given “some kind of pill” to her family for nourishment if such pills existed – and after hours puttering around in the kitchen to produce one of his excellent roasts with lots and lots of gravy, he’d sit down at the family table to reap the fruits of his labors. Which always included the telling of some kind of anecdote. As a history major as well as an avid reader, he had quite some credibility in our family regarding his wealth of knowledge about any historical subject.
I suspect, however, that most of his stories were made up. Or if not entirely made up, then very embellished at the least. He never divulged his sources, so it was hard to tell truth from fiction, and he rarely told the same story twice. His anecdotes were always about some lesser-known historical figure, or if they were about someone famous, say, Napoleon, the tale my father would regale us with would be about some lesser-known facet of that figure’s life, some private joke that only my father seemed to be in on, as if he’d been right there and lived through it himself. He’d quote exactly what each person had said, using his hands to gesticulate, and thus history would come alive around our Sunday roast every single week of my childhood.
My father was not the only storyteller in our family. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Hans Riehm, was an even more gifted raconteur. Having served for Kaiser and Vaterland in both World Wars I and II, he had many stories to tell. What my father had to invent for lack of having been there, my grandfather had actually lived through, from spying on French troops from a balloon over the trenches somewhere in the Vosges Mountains in 1918 to signing discharge slips for wounded German soldiers in Russia as a Wehrmacht doctor a quarter century later. Even though I never doubted the veracity of any of his stories, which always included a heavy dose of laugh-out-loud self-deprecation, I’m pretty sure that he, too, liberally sprinkled elements of the “good story” into his tales that prevented them from being entirely accurate.
Accurate or not, I wasn’t particularly interested in all that storytelling as a kid. Much like my own daughter now, I was most impatient to get on with the important things I wanted to do in life, like chatting with my friends or reading forbidden Donald-Duck comics under the covers, rather than sitting through boring storytelling hours with old people.
What wouldn’t I give for the opportunity to hear those stories one more time, now that I’m old enough to appreciate them!
The women in my family were not very gifted in the oral tradition. My mother could never even quite tell a joke without giving the punchline away too early, and most often she’d ask my father to jump in at the halfway point and finish it for her, much like my grandmother would finish the knitted sweaters I so hopefully started and then couldn’t finish when parts like shoulders and necklines got too complicated. Her mother (wife to the aforementioned Hans Riehm and my other grandmother, the non-knitting one) was a stern woman who, albeit of formidable mind which she kept about her until her death at 101 years old, did not have much of a sense of humor at all. What they had, however, was a keen sense of preserving history and the tenacity to write a lot of it down. My grandmother kept and organized all the letters between her and my grandfather when he was interned by the American occupational forces for several years after World War II, and even the ones he’d written to his mother as an 18-year old from the previous war. My mother recorded much of our family’s history in the form of long essays she typed over the years and kept in thick binders on her disorganized shelves, together with sheafs of genealogy records tracing our family all the way back to, rumor has it, Charlemagne himself.
But my father’s anecdotes, I’m afraid, are probably lost forever, save what my brothers might remember. When I turned into a teenager, I began to see through some of my dad’s poetic license and greatly resented it, if not him, leaving me less and less inclined to pay attention. I was finally old enough to remember, but I stopped listening. It is only now that I’m much older (and hopefully a little wiser), now that I am telling my kids stories of my own that make them in turn cringe and not wanting to listen, now that I sometimes take license with my own anecdotes for the betterment of the end product – it is only now that I finally understand the motto my father knew so well:
“A good story is sometimes preferable to an accurate one.”
I found that quote in Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. Apparently Franklin D. Roosevelt spun many colorful family legends, like his father James fighting with Garibaldi for Italian unification back in the day, or the ship his mother Sara and her family traveled to China on when she was a small child nearly being ambushed by the dreaded Confederate privateer Alabama. Even though most of these tales were later debunked by the application of accurate dates, this didn’t deter FDR. Telling a good story was “part of his charm.”
If FDR could get away with it, certainly my father should too.