We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
I lost my paternal grandfather, the second of my grandfathers to leave us, in the middle of the coldest month of the year. We buried him on a freezing morning, huddled against the wind and a rabbi’s words. We listened quietly to the sermon as the gray expanse around us became speckled with snow.
At the close of the service, we followed each other out of the cemetery, a parade of wobbly ankles on slick ground. Cars trickled out of the parking lot, down the turnpike, toward my uncle’s apartment. His three rooms on the East River would house us in mourning. Jewish people sit for days after a death, simply to talk. To fill, with stories, the place where a human is absent.
When I was in college, I volunteered in the women’s unit of the Dutchess County Jail, where I led a writing group with another volunteer. For an hour and a half on Wednesday evenings, in a cheerless multipurpose room upstate, we sat together.
Molly and I had begun our work at the jail with full-hearted eagerness to discuss line endings and simile. On the first Wednesday of the semester, we arrived with fifteen copies of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” and the enthusiasm of English majors fresh out of Intermediate Poetry. Within the first 20 minutes, we fully abandoned the idea that our group within those beige cinderblock walls would resemble a straightforward English class. Instead, as participants began to write and read frankly about their experiences, the room quieted. The air shifted.
Everyone was listening.
There is a soothing quality to storytelling, something that necessitates its practice in the face of inarticulate pain. As our group settled into itself, we learned to reply to one another’s work in clipped, aching phrases: “I didn’t know that had happened to you”; “you told it beautifully”; “that was real”; “I’ve been there, too.” Readers stood squarely, allowing their words to sit on the chests of others. Somehow, by no power of mine or my co-leader’s, healing was happening there: participants’ through one another, and mine through quietly listening to the narratives of their rich, intense lives. It was dense, pulpy healing.
I lost my first grandfather, my mother’s father, early in the development of that class. The proximity of his death to the class’s birth felt right; cosmic, even. Grandfathers, after all, are wonderful storytellers. Each of mine, in life, carried an arsenal of stories with him. My grandfathers told stories to alleviate pain and boredom, to teach and to learn, to connect with others. This was their formula for a life richly-lived; the secret ingredient to existence that they passed down to me, like a well-packaged story itself.
My maternal grandfather was a somewhat small, somewhat quiet man. The only time I ever heard him raise his voice was in the direction of the television, during the airtime of certain GOP presidential hopefuls. He had a toothy smile, a gentle laugh, a marrow-deep reserve of generosity. His forehead was soft; it inclined towards you when you spoke; it sweat when he ate mustard. He was a human-loving-human, in the most undiluted form I’ve ever had the honor to encounter.
The richest way he connected with humans – the tiny ones on lap gazing up into his soft eyes, as well as the big strangers, pulsing with thoughts and politics out there in the universe – was through stories.
When I was small, he gave me the gift of musical theatre. I walked to his apartment after school, seven city blocks from my own. I plopped down at the dining room table, waiting as he prepared a plate of apple slices and peanut butter for me. As we settled in, elbows on dark wood, he slid a VHS tape across the tabletop. Each of those square boxes, labeled in his blue-ink block print, contained another new song to worm its way into my bloodstream (“COMPANY – Recording Session,” says the one nearest me as I write this…I still have so many, and no longer a VCR to play them on). He talked about the tape-of- the-week in rich, generous praise. “Elaine Stritch,” he would begin, admiration settling into all of his creases, “is something.” I raptly absorbed; nodded along; munched on apple, sticky and sweet.
He loved Sondheim most of all, and the reason was simple: Sondheim told the fullest human stories. Those musicals were the darkest and the lightest, the most complex and most basic, the most intense and the most mundane. Wonders the baker’s wife in Into the Woods: “Must it all be either less or more,/Either plain or grand?/Is it always ‘or’?/Is it never ‘and’?” Sondheim’s answer: it’s always ‘and.’
Grandpa gave me those musicals when I was small, planting the seed for what he knew would be a lifelong relationship with them. Every year since, I have revisited, re-loved, and understood another thing about them. I know, as he knew, that life is fuller with Sondheim lyrics.
He wrote me letters throughout my childhood, and asked me to write back. A funny request – we were practically neighbors, and he tutored in my elementary school, so I saw him almost every day. But he insisted we be pen pals, telling one another about our days through the careful act of writing. He encouraged my description of field trips to Ellis Island, of new foods attempted (disgusting and otherwise), of adventures at the post office. I stretched my limbs, tentatively filling into my writing. And he wrote back, warm and prompt.
He’d write sometimes about years long before me. He described the time he lived in Japan with my grandmother, marked by home-warmed noodles, army bases, and youth; misunderstandings, unfamiliar culture, new love. I drank in these tales like an old movie, color-extracted but dignified in grey. Sometimes, he wrote to me of my mother’s own girlhood, describing how alike we were in our thoughtful exploration, our crinkled worry. And other times still, he wrote about his afternoons tutoring math, buying groceries, meeting the neighbors’ new dog. Our letters were an intimate exchange, full of the enduring and the ordinary, the philosophical and the giggly.
This exercise more deeply entwined our already interwoven lives. It exposed me to his love of language, of sharing, of conveying. It established the kind of closeness that can only be constructed on paper. I found his letters waiting for me, fresh-stamped and bright, on the table when I came home; with each one, he deepened my growing adoration. I became a person who stays up late with lyrics and poems, turning them over, excavating their gems.
My paternal grandfather was a storyteller, too – in that serene, white-haired way of grandfathers. He was the father of my father, the true patriarch of my small orbit. He stood well over six feet. His deep voice and handsome features were unmistakable, as was his laugh that boomed, bass and bodily, after a well-crafted pun. I did not know him as intimately as I did my mother’s father; this is one of those uncomfortable family truths with no justification, something I wish I could go back and change. He was a reserved man whose heart was difficult to know.
Yet everyone knew that he infused even the simplest afternoons with vibrancy. When my sister and I were small – perhaps five and eight – he took us to the zoo. We travelled to the Bronx on a sweltering summer afternoon. By 2PM, even the slightest pulse in the air was a crash of relief. He steered us toward the elephants when we arrived, a story on his tongue.
“Do you know how the elephant got his trunk?” he asked, when we had reached their enclosure. We shook our heads doubtfully in the pause.
“He used to have a stubby nose, and he was always curious. One day, he became so curious about the crocodile, he wandered toward the river to ask him what he eats for dinner. The crocodile, who will eat anything, grabbed the elephant’s nose between his teeth…and pulled.”
We were spellbound in the sun. Behind us, the elephants stood witness.
“The elephant pulled back until the crocodile let go,” Grandpa finished. “By then, his nose was five feet long.”
There was our living proof: tranquil, giant. Endlessly long-nosed.
Later, I would come to know the elephant’s plight as one of a collection – the Just-So Stories, my grandfather’s favorites, which he presented to me in purple hardcover. They explore the origins of animals in abstract brushstrokes, spots and stripes.
His approach to telling stories was always lighthearted. He shared through one-liners, double-meanings, and songs. He would tell us to “eat every carrot and pee on your plate,” eliciting laughs that drowned out all the legitimacy of vegetables.
This is the web of his life: an abandoning father, a cousin like an older brother, a red-brick corner of Brooklyn. Two draft letters in two different wars. Three states, a great love, her great premature loss. Two stubborn sons. Two carefully collected degrees, jobs by day and school by night. The golden meeting of his second wife. Trips to China, to the rodeo, to the hospital. One enormous appetite. This is the plot, the structure, the narrative twists and explorative turns. The literary joy is in the details: the bagpipe CDs, the ancient figurines, the flourless chocolate cake.
In the face of incredible pain – and there was plenty – he persevered by telling stories. He told them for eighty-nine years. And his own story – imperfect, multifaceted, lived-in – was epic in scope. It was never ‘or,’ but always ‘and.’
These two men wove stories into everything. It was how they crafted their living days. Now that they are gone, it is through stories that they continue. And it is through stories that we continue.
After a death, the urgency for storytelling heightens. We use it to remember, to heal, to look back, and to move forward. We speak not in strokes of cemetery white-and- grey, but in the bright colors of the living: recognizable habits, oversized stamp collections, intents to visit Scotland. We talk about what happened when there was too much wine at dinner – how cheeks burned red, how dirty language flowed, how horrible dancing was inevitable. We talk about which Beatles songs she sang in the shower, which book he hated enough to use to stabilize the couch leg. As in life, storytelling after death is vivid. We use it build, to construct, in the space where something has vanished.
I have never doubted that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but it is clearer to me now more than ever. There’s something even in the act of pressing these keys, assembling letters in a solitary Word document, which feels like communion.
In the unremarkable beige room that housed our writing group at the jail, a specific feeling recurred each week, even as inmates came and went. Each of us, in our own version of loneliness, sought something connective. Writing it down, speaking it aloud. The restorative power in having your heartache received by an ear.
As we set off in Molly’s green Volvo on our way to the first class, we did not know exactly what we were about to rediscover about this practice. We did not know how profound the need to share stories would be in that room. But my grandfathers had given me all the tools I needed to step through the door.
It was a complete thematic accident, but one I hang on to, that our first selected poem, “Wild Geese,” centers on a simple, soulful line: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
Amanda Feinman is a writer and arts administrator based in New York City. In her work (and her life!), she is dedicated to exploring the socially transformative power of the arts, especially as they relate to social justice, feminism, education, and individual empowerment. She loves theatre, coffee, and public radio, and she holds a BA in English from Vassar College.