Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Which We Ponder Public Storytelling (But Have Left Out the Laugh Track Cues)

Except for the nerdy awesomeness that is Click and Clack, NPR sucks moldy mothballs on Saturdays during the day. Saturday nights, however, are kind of awesome. There are at least three different shows on which it is possible to tell a story on public radio on Saturday nights.

As I drove home tonight from dropping Twelve at the airport and spending some time with a friend at her family home (I always say that people make more sense in the context of their families), I did what I am almost always doing: Imagining myself telling a story in front of people and/or on the radio.

To clarify: I am not almost always imagining myself telling stories publicly. I am almost always putting myself in the position of whoever is doing whatever is being done. This is the basis of whatever ability I may have to understand privilege and oppression in any of the forms I don't experience, but it is also a major drawback when I read novels like Room. I have read about A LOT of fictional and factual shit that fictional or actual people have experienced and am pretty good at mentally rehearsing what I'd do in those situations. As a kid, I read about Corrie ten Boom and Anne Frank in Germany during World War II. Sergei Kourdakov, smashing in Christians' faces in the 70s in the Soviet Union. James Herriot, scrabbling around on the freezing cold byre floor, trying and trying and trying to deliver that damn calf. Cambodian refugee families becoming acclimated to the US in my very own town, thinly disguised. Those soccer - or was it rugby? - players whose plane crashed and who became severely constipated as a result of all the cannibalism. As an adult, I continued the tradition: I went through a second wave feminist memoir stage, discovered that we banished Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII, and got to know Eva Khatchadourian in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Room, though ... Room messed with my head, big time. Kept me up fretting the night after I finished it, even. I am pretty confident that I could have handled most of that other stuff. I wouldn't have enjoyed it, per se, and maybe I would have handled things slightly differently, but I can imagine myself at least surviving. Stick me in an eleven square foot cage with a deranged zookeeper, though, and I'm not sure I would have made it, much less managed to nurture a child. 

Anyway, I was driving home and thinking about what story I'd tell if I ever got around to telling stories in public.

Problem: I couldn't think of any actual stories. I've never brought joy to a roomful of elderly people by dancing with my wheelchair-bound grandmother. I've never reached a point of familial truce with my acerbic father by simply being present when he finds out his mother has died. I've never had my credit card stolen by a pizza place employee and played detective to find the crook. Stories about Twelve are not quite ... story-like. They're not long enough to be stories: They're anecdotes, the haiku of prose. They're the amuse bouche of storytelling. They don't quite have the satisfaction of a big bowl of hot, spicy ramen. The actual telling of the story should take longer than it takes to get up to the microphone, right?

Finally, as I'm imagining myself sputtering and totally wasting my single 60-second opportunity to wow producers with my voicemail-leaving ability, I figure out what my story could be. And here it is: 

I have been sewing for as long as I can remember. I come from a long line of women who sew. My mother grew up sewing her own clothes, once made us reasonably successful matching swimsuits, and taught me to sew, even though she refused to teach me how to do set-in sleeves when I was about ten, claiming they were too complicated. When I figured out how simple it was to do set-in sleeves a few years later, I distinctly remember feeling betrayed.

Her mother also grew up sewing her own clothes, taught my mother to sew, and once declined my request to teach me how to do hemstitching on a scrap of linen I had found somewhere in her house. Apparently hemstitching on linen is not something you just 'do' in a spare minute.

Her mother also grew up sewing her own clothes, taught my grandmother to sew, and there is a yellowed photograph of her teaching me to knit, during the same visit during which I asked - on camera, on a VHS tape that has now been digitized for all eternity - why she put a walnut in her canned peaches. It was a peach pit.

Given this Old Testament-like litany of sewing matriarchy, it's probably not surprising that there are certain things that are sewn and given on certain occasions in my family. Many of these ritual gifts occur at the birth of new family members, specifically Sally Doll and Star Man.

Sally Doll has a pointed head, an embroidered face, and a ribbon tied around its neck. Star Man is an eponymously shaped creature with an embroidered face on one of the points. Both are made of serviceable fabric, typically of the time period in which it is given.

My Sally Doll is made out of double knit polyester.

When the current generation of babies began to show up, my mother inherited the Sally Doll and Star Man making duties for my sister's and cousins' children. My mother also makes Hooded Towels.

If you've had a baby in the last couple of decades and my mother was invited to your shower, you know what I'm talking about.

The Hooded Towel is a brilliant baby shower gift; it's simple and inexpensive enough to make frequently, it's easy to match the color to gender or bathroom decor, it's unique, and the whole DIY craze of the last few years has really ramped up the appreciation factor for the homemade gift.

Here's the thing, though. My friends have started to have babies and I'm starting to be invited to baby showers. I was thinking about how I don't have time to make elaborate gifts for everyone when I remembered about the Hooded Towel.

My mom doesn't know these people! I realized. She's not going to be invited to the showers! I don't have to kill myself making six baby quilts in as many weeks; I can buy six bath towels and six matching washcloths and be done in one afternoon!

As my friend untied the ribbon around her Hooded Towel, I explained that this was a traditional gift in my family and joked that I had now officially become my mother.

But - giant ten-pound handbags aside - that's okay. The women in my family have been on the cutting edge of DIY since before it was cool. Way before. We also have a depression-era recipe for chocolate cake that just so happens to be vegan. BOOM. 

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