Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Letter from Harrisburg
My sister-in-law Barb was over last evening, sitting in a wing chair reading a book while we waited for the rest of the siblings to come for a family meeting.
Suddenly, I remembered something. I had a story to tell my family before everyone arrived. Nothing as profound as a family legend sort of story, nor an embarrassing experience story, but a did-you-hear-what-happened story that was worth more than just a simple statement of fact.
That is the first step — deciding if it’s worthy. Even I, who can yarn a story out of accidentally sweeping the cat off the porch, admit that a few things merit only a brief sharing of information. But this called for more.
Next, I made sure I had the attention of everyone within earshot. My family laughs at me for this habit, but a story falls flat if you have to go back and repeat the first half because people were rattling dishes or reading the sports page.
“Did you hear about Katie?” I asked, sitting up straight with my eyes open wide, the universal signals for “Hear me, People, I have something to say.” “I heard she was sick,” my daughter Emily said.
That was a great introduction. I wound up for the first pitch, so to speak, but just as I took a deep breath,
“She has a pancreatic cyst!” Barb burst out.
I was horrified.
“You truly are a Smucker!” I said with maybe a little more vehemence and venom than the situation required.
Barb looked bewildered.
“You finish my stories!” I wailed. “With the ending! Before I get there!”
Barb, I am guessing, was thinking, “What? You asked. I answered.”
I have been married for almost 30 years.
My husband comes from a wonderful family of generous and loving people who take care of each other and work hard and say exactly what they think with no malice and no subtle twists and no feelings getting hurt.
I am sure a few of us in-laws have been a mystery to them, with our abundant complicated emotions and tendency toward drama, but they have always acted like this was OK and we weren’t obligated to be just like them.
Like many other things, we were not a big deal. Such acceptance is a blessed relief.
So I have come to accept and even enjoy our differences, except for this one flaw — so shockingly different from how I was raised — of cutting in to finish someone’s story in the most efficient way possible.
I come from Yoder-Miller-Schlabach stock, where storytelling is high art, perfected around picnic tables at family reunions, by the hitching post after an Amish Sunday service, or in a hot kitchen full of sisters-in-law and steaming applesauce.
First the pause in the conversation, the little smile that portends a wonderful story, the slow introduction, the expressive gesture, the heavy pause, the mimicked conversation, the building tension, the expectant grins or gasps in the audience, the sitting up straighter, another pause, and finally the blessed ending, followed by wild laughter or a few tears of heartfelt empathy.
The audience also knows its role well — the attentive listening, the affirming nods, the well-timed chuckle or shake of the head or murmured German ai-sis-unfaschtandich, which means anything from, “Oh my” to “You’ve got to be kidding” to “Shocking. Just unbelievable.”
You don’t interrupt the story. Everyone knows this. If you need the lemonade, you quietly gesture to Levi at the end of the table, and never in a hundred years would you do something so shameful as to speak up and give away the end of the story.
From retelling the incident in line at WinCo to the story of Great-Grandma and Aunt Kettie selling cherries in Portland, this is how it’s done. It’s the Right Way.
I still think that to leap into the story and tell the ending before it’s time is an appalling and unthinkable breach of etiquette.
The Smuckers were not raised like this.
To them, it’s all about getting to the point as quickly as possible. The facts are important, the information and the conclusion. And, most of all, stating it immediately if you know it. They have no tolerance for waiting, for suspense. They have no compunctions about interrupting.
This is why Barb blurted out that Katie had a pancreatic cyst.
Mercifully for my precious little story, it so happened that none of my listeners had understood exactly what Barb said, so this time, for once, the story was saved. I told it from the beginning, how Katie was going along fine and then suddenly and with no warning at all wasn’t feeling well, and her mom found her in her room in terrible pain, and they spent the day at the hospital instead of at Courtney’s graduation, and it turned out to be a cyst THIS BIG, and this week they’ll probably do surgery.
Not the most amazing of tales, I admit, but worthy of a proper telling.
This is what you don’t think about ahead of time, I want to tell the parade of happy young couples in our lives getting married this summer: your spouse’s family, fun and happy bunch that they might be, is in many ways a different culture from your own family.
They are going to do some things completely wrong. Things that your family has always done right. Roles, communication styles, whether you fuss over a sick person or leave them alone, whether you eat everything you put on your plate.
Or that’s how it seems to you. Your spouse will see it from the opposite angle, with the labels reversed.
Part of what makes marriage such an amazing institution is the process of slowly mixing your cultures so you both end up better people than you would have been otherwise.
My subtle-timing, story-telling family also taught me the unfortunate communication style of turning silent and sad when I was upset, and waiting for someone else to notice and ask what’s wrong.
I didn’t realize how far I’ve come until I saw a certain daughter do the same thing the other day, all forlorn on the other side of the dinner table, waiting for us to say something.
“Listen,” I said, blunt and articulate as any born-and-bred Smucker, “No more of this. You either bring it up and talk about it or be happy.”
I’ve switched my labels, I realized.
I still think it’s appalling to interrupt another’s story and insert the ending, but my determined training of my children hasn’t worked very well. The genes prevail. You must Say It or die.
Some time ago my husband said, “Are you looking forward to getting together with my family next week?”
I said, “Yes, except I have to prepare myself that if I do get to tell a story and other people can actually hear me, someone else is bound to — ”
“Finish it?” interrupted a daughter.
I gave up. This was beyond fixing.
We all laughed about it.
This is my message for the newlyweds: Learn from each other, bend your old ideas, flex your limits of acceptance. Some things are wrong, some are right, some are both, just from different perspectives. Love your in-laws anyhow. Let things go. Laugh a lot at the stuff that drives you crazy. It will make a great story someday, and maybe you’ll get to tell it all the way to the end.