Storytelling genetics

When I was home a few weeks ago, in my native Connecticut, I got chance to visit with my father’s sister, my Aunt Margaret, and she told some great stories. Like the time she ventured into a burnt-down house, after squeezing through a thicket of greenery, found some wonderful antique bottles but later came down with a case of poison ivy so severe, she ended up in the hospital. The way she told it, so colorfully, full of detail and facial expressions, laughing at her own folly, made me laugh, even though I had heard it before. She is a great raconteur, as is my dad, and many other people in our family, which made me wonder if being able to tell a great story is a genetic trait, something passed down from generation to generation, like blue eyes or an autoimmune disease.

It takes not only intelligence, or good memory, but that eye for detail, an ability to resurrect a moment in time in such a believable way (even if it involves a little embroidery), that your audience is riveted. And if humor is involved, so much the better.  I’m lucky in that I seem to have gotten it from both sides of my family, though I see now, my own style is a definite mixture of both—and two very different ways of telling a story.

You might think my predilection for telling elaborate fibs comes from my Irish blood, but this is not necessarily so. For one thing, as  genetic tests reveal, we seem to be more English than Irish, more Anglo-Saxon than Celtic. Which could have been troublesome if we lived in 1916 Dublin, but otherwise, it’s a good mixture: Their stories are mordant, a bit cynical, but quick-witted, self-deprecating, and even employ some simple literary techniques, like wordplay or framing devices, sometimes with an unintended moral at the end.  It blends well with my Danish grandfather’s storytelling, which is a bit terser, but involves a fondness for dropping startling detail (“…and it was so cold up there, my father said your spit would freeze before it hit the ground.”) His family came from the bogs of Southern Jutland, where ancient corpses are still unearthed, bearing signs of human sacrifice; and the author of the great saga Beowulf may well have been a direct ancestor of ours. But thankfully, we don’t have too many bloodthirsty or gory tales to tell these days.

But this is not to discount my mother’s side of the family. They were storytellers, too, but in a more rambling,  incoherent way. Both her parents called themselves, simply, Polish; but my genetic test reads like a history of Eastern Europe, with some Polish, but also Lithuanian, Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian, a smidgeon of  Balkan, Tatar and Ashkenazi. For years, I have suffered from a mild anxiety disorder, and can’t help but wonder if it was bred into my genes, prompted by all those years of invasion, war, rape, pillage and starvation. So the stories my mother’s mother and my great-aunts told were cruder in a literary sense, usually missing some crucial detail, with little wit and some punishing moral (how many times did Aunt Ruth tell us the story of the bad little girl whose head got chopped off by the elevator doors? Every time we went shopping with her in the Hartford department stores and ventured too close to those evil doors (And in case you were wondering what happened to said head, an old lady picked it up and put it in her shopping cart.) My Polish family’s stories usually involved some kind of religious or mystical phenomenon, like the dove that flew into my great-grandfather’s room when he died, and took his soul up to Heaven—or so we believe. My Aunt Ruth, who was the concocter of the more bizarre stories—and lived two doors down from us so we got them full-force– often said that the way a person died was a reflection of how they lived their lives, and what God thought of them: “You always get the death you deserve,” she said; and since she was killed at the age of 88 by a florist’s van running a red light as she walked home from the grocery store (with $2,000 cash in her purse), we don’t really know what to make of that.

I like to think my style reflects both my English-Irish family’s snarky, sparkly wit and my mother’s family’s preoccupation with the mystical, though looking back at my various novels, it seems often that one side predominates over the other. I’ll let my readers guess which ones. And it seems a good time to confess that I am indeed working on a new novel, even as I complete my biographical project. This one definitely bears the influence of my father’s side of the family…which means, it should make you laugh.

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