When I was a child, my mother belonged to a sewing club, a group of about eight ladies that would meet one evening each month to chat (well, maybe you’re right: gossip) while each worked on a sewing or knitting project.
When the group met at our house, I always pretended to ignore the conversation but, in truth, I was fascinated. The subject, of course, was always people, local people. Their stories were told and re-told with no particular cattiness that I recall. The ladies were interested in the people and their stories, not in making anyone look bad.
And always the stories included meticulous attention to a certain intertwining. It was never a simple, “Bill and Mary’s youngest son is getting married next summer.”
No, it was something more like this: “Bill and Mary’s youngest son is getting married next summer. Not the older one; he’s still in school in San Francisco, studying to be a pharmacist. This is Tommy, the one who hurt his leg so badly in that car wreck last year. His limp is gone now. Dr. Adams must have done something right with that leg. What did this town ever do without him? He’s marrying Marie Cox from Lakeport. She was raised in Cloverdale, where her father ran the Rexall drug store for years. Her mother is part of the Johnson family that settled the land just south of Booneville. I remember my grandfather saying old Mr. Johnson could clip more wool off a sheep than any rancher around. I think they’ll be good together.”
And so each story–each person!–became a strand in the social fabric of our community. We knew who we were because we knew where we fit in with everybody else.
Not many people today know they are a thread in a community’s story. Conversations are too hurried. People move in and our of the community too fast. Privacy is guarded too zealously. And other story tellers have come to dominate our lives.
The best of these new story tellers seem to go into advertising work, learning to convince us to fit our own lives into the story they make up about some silly product or another. Almost as good are the screenwriters who fill theater and television screens with pointless stories about imaginary and not very lifelike people.
Just think of the bar called Cheers. It was funny and well-written, by current standards. But it was absurdly unrealistic: no person and no friendship was ever damaged by being insulted. Or think of the cop shows, where life slips into ultra-slow motion whenever a bullet plows into a body.
No, these stories are not going to help me know my place. They are told by people who don’t know that I’m the Mike Hayes who used to hang around with Rich and Tom and Dave, who ran on the first cross country team up at the high school, who became student body president, who gave a good speech at graduation that year, who wanted to marry that girl who eventually dumped him. You remember her–her mom was a school teacher and her sister still lives out in Redwood Valley, married to John, whose family moved to town just after the war.
Nobody intent on selling me a tube of deodorant in a designer package will ever put me in my place like those old story tellers would have. Too bad the sewing club broke up about the same time as television came to our town, when I was still too young to be talked about. Nobody ever told my story over an argyle sock.
Lord Jesus, are you minding my story? Please don’t lose track of me.