Monday, October 15, 2012

Broken Glass

So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The first prompt was: "In fifteen minutes, tell the first story you ever heard."

In my family, the first stories a child hears are the history of the family, tales told again and again through the years, shaping the way we see ourselves and each other. I have no doubt the stories change in the telling, and 40 years later are probably no longer true in a strict sense. But these are the folklore, the myths and legends that shape the familial culture.
I was the youngest of a blended family, and my step-siblings were both considerably older than I, so I did not grow up with them and get to know them as well as I knew my other brother, only two years my elder. To me, my father’s divorce, the early childhood of those enigmatic kids, and the beginning days of my parents’ marriage were strange and mysterious times hidden just as much in ancient history as the Roman Empire or the Great Depression. My father worked nights; my mother was an elementary school teacher. These facts, so far removed from the reality of my own childhood, made everything seem more exotic, more magical.

 When my step-sister was only 3 and her brother was 7, he ran through a sliding glass door because he thought it was open. Years later, he told me that it wasn’t a sliding glass door, it was a window that he was trying to open or to close, but the facts don’t matter; only the story does. So he ran through the glass door and badly cut his arm on a jagged blade of broken glass. My father worked a couple of jobs, and one of them was a night shift. Because of this, the kids were well-trained: “Don’t wake Dad.” On the day of the broken door, he was sleeping. Don’t ask how he slept through the crash of an entire glass door coming down on his son; as I said, the facts matter less than the tale.

Trying not to panic the kids, Mom pressed a towel to the bloody wound and held it there, calmly asking her 3-year-old stepdaughter to go wake her father. Remembering the edict she’d learned so well, she tiptoed into the bedroom and whispered, “Dad, wake up.” He, of course, did not wake up. She tried again: “Dad, wake up.”

In the telling, there is no resolution to the story. Eventually, I’m sure, Dad awoke and helped Mom get the boy proper medical attention. But it ends with the whispering little girl, because that’s all that’s needed. It encapsulates the character of each of the 4 players: Dad, the hard-working and dedicated man willing to do whatever he must to support his family. Mom, calm and capable in a crisis. The boy, a wild child with a legacy of thrown rocks and broken bones. The girl, small and uncertain, trying to do right by the father she adores.

The telling of that story, and the many other family anecdotes, shaped not only how I saw them, but how I saw myself. The oral history of a people defines not only the culture of the group, but perhaps more profoundly, the way that each individual understands not only his fellows, but also himself.

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