My father recently passed away at 103 years old. Universal among condolences from family and friends was the comment of the great stories he told. Having been around him all my life, I took his talent for granted but now I want to examine his memory closer. Was it the stories themselves, the way he told them or a combination of both? And can his skill be transferred to a son who never lived through his experiences?
Born near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1916, dad was fourteen in 1930 when the Great Depression’s wrath slammed the prairies already suffering drought. He and a chum hit the rails and rode freight cars in search of a better life. Clearing the Frank Slide, picking Okanagan fruit, panning for gold, selling household chemicals door-to-door in the poorest Vancouver tenements and eventually fishing and working in sawmills on north Vancouver Island, the 1930’s were filled with Steinbeckian misadventures.
WWII brought some relief in terms of steady employment in the Vancouver shipyards before dad joined the army. Basic training, meeting and marrying my mother in a whirlwind romance before shipping overseas to England (weird coincidence, his younger brother whom he hadn’t seen in years, was on the same troopship), and combat episodes in Holland and France provided more epic material for his stories.
Despite this tough life, dad never viewed it as anything other than ‘life’. Not to be merely endured, but to be harvested for the good times and the good people he met. That was the success content in his stories. No matter the bleak moments, the closure often, though not always, provided a positive takeaway. Life carried on and one gave back when and where one could.
He had the travails but he wasn’t unique. Many people suffered similar hard times in the ’30’s depression, the war and the post-war struggle to build security for a new family. He told his tales with a great ear for dialect. He plucked the humour from the embarrassing and frightening moments. He put his heart into the description. He could pick out a visual cue which brought an image full-blown to the listener’s mind and nailed the story down for future remembrance.
Now to my author part of the exercise, though I do treasure the chance to share his memories: how to adapt verbal storytelling skills to the written page? To my mind, the shared ingredients are: pathos (honest emotion), believable dialogue, risk (stakes), triumph or defeat (conclusion, not ‘closure’, for the story goes on after the last page), and a key to tie it all together with style (presentation is the divider between those who can tell their story well and those who have a good story but can’t deliver it memorably).
I’ll close with a short anecdote about dad. During a lunch many years ago, my folks had long-time friends visiting from out of town. Following one of my dad’s tales, one guest commented that he should write a book. Dad’s normal answer I’d heard many times was “no one would believe it”. This time he threw me, his response was, “I’ve done too many things I’m not proud of.” Dad, I get the final word this time and it is, “No you haven’t. I’m proud of everything you did and accomplished.” Thanks for the stories and the gift (I hope) to tell them.