Stories Left Untold

What do I do with an untold life story?
Wrap it up softly then throw it away.
Are there boxes for keeping the old fading mem’ries
Of times past and times spent and grey yesterdays?

My grandmother-in-law is turning eighty-nine next month. We recently spent the day with her, listening to stories of her childhood and asking her about the family genealogy. She could rattle off names and dates without a pause, and I was heartened to spend time with someone her age, still so sharp. I don’t have that in my own family.

My husband knew some of the stories, had heard them growing up, but wanted me to hear them directly from her. These were her stories to tell, and he felt that some of the details weren’t his to disclose, even though he knew them. As we relaxed in our motel room that night, we got into a discussion about personal stories. He said that he never feels it’s appropriate to tell someone else’s story, unless it’s common knowledge—something the person has shared openly in a group setting. Even then, he’s not the type to gossip about it when the person’s not present.

I didn’t remember ever hearing him, in all our time together, put it quite this way. I knew from years of experience that I had to ask a million questions when he got off the phone with his mother, if I wanted to know what was happening with his siblings. And even then, I’d get a few terse comments with as little detail as possible. I had always attributed that to a quirk of temperament, a communication style, not a deeper belief about story.

The next morning, I woke up with a poem fragment in my head, one I had written weeks before:
The tale I want
To tell’s not mine
You own it

I had written little beyond that, not knowing what to do with it. The rest came out that morning, inspired by the conversations the day before.

This wasn’t the first time I had grappled with story in this way. Years ago, when I wrote Storyteller, I was struggling to find my own voice and wondered what right I had to my own story, what permission I needed to tell it. With my parents still alive, with society defining me, with my own insecurities, I wondered if I’d ever have the words, the voice, the strength, the courage to tell my own tale. What story would I choose to tell? There are many versions, many viewpoints. Whose is most valid?

It seems obvious to say that mine is, but somehow it’s not that simple. My viewpoint as a child is very different from my viewpoint now. The stories I tell about my parents, about the relationship with my mother, have shifted. Even the stories I tell about myself, about who I was and why, have changed as I’ve aged, adding experiences with the years that have colored and shaded those tales, giving them a depth that I couldn’t always appreciate. And others, that once seemed so important, have faded away. As the narrative shifts, which me tells the tale? And which tales are left untold?

Don’t Be Fooled

ONE LITTLE WORD

In the world of words
In all the meanings
All the sly twists
And clever phrases
One confounds the rest
Tripping tongues stumble
On its smoothness
All innocent on the outside
Looking light and airy
Sounding simple and easy
But oh so heavy
Watch it roll backwards
Choking the slickest throat
Straining the strongest voice
Really who among you dares
To say I love you

What’s Said, What’s Heard, What’s Meant, What’s Remembered

“That sucks.”

“What?”

“That poem.”

My poem?  “It doesn’t suck.”

“It’s just sad.”

That’s not what you said.  “It doesn’t suck!”

“No, it’s excellent.”

Then apologize.  “It doesn’t suck.”

“What’s behind the poem. It’s sad.”

“It doesn’t suck.”

“Just to clarify—that poem is insightful, penetrating. I think it will resonate with a lot of people, but the truth behind it sucks.”

That’s still not what you said.

When “I Do” Becomes “To Do”

TO DO

When did loving you become
An item to do on a list,
Folded in between washing
And ironing your shirts,
Vacuuming cat hair, or
Emptying the dishwasher.

Is it enough that I promise
I’ll get to you, I’ll work you in
Between crying children and
Groaning parents and endless
Meetings followed by a long
Commute—will you wait your turn?

When did loving you stop
Being the reason I needed
That list—to remind myself I
Had real-world things to do,
Down below the clouds,
Back on solid ground.

The grass has grown long and
The roof is leaking again.
We eat late suppers of
Burnt toast and cold coffee
Leftover from morning, while
Planning for tomorrow.

When did loving you switch
From distraction to obligation,
Swapping one guilt for another,
Needing to breathe, but feeling
Myself gasp instead, inhaling
That moment the air grew stale.

As I write your name in pencil,
I peek at your paper, needing to
See my name still there, written
When love was a promise made before
Children and chores, musts and mayhem,
This life of lists, when loving you
Became the to do.

Variation on a Theme

The Knot Maker

She sat by the sea with a net on her knee
Weaving knots to encompass the wind.
As each cell took its shape, no hole could escape,
And she hummed a slight tune without end.
This net woven strong was just like her song—
It would capture the memories of old,
For no matter how rife with struggle for life,
The knots in her net would still hold.
Yes there’d be some escape, since the size of the gape
Couldn’t possibly hold every fish.
But for each one she lost, she could bear the slight cost—
The big ones were all that she wished.
Let the little ones swim, the fancies the whims,
The choices that swarm through the day.
Just keep the big fins, the losses and wins,
Life is more than the catch of the day.

Even If It’s Only a Whisper

TELL YOUR TALE

The tale I want
To tell’s not mine
You own it
I have no right
My truths are lies
You say you
Can’t condone it
But sin and shame
And secrets hide
And sharpen over time
The tale is yours
The wound and pain
Are mine

Mothers stab their
daughters
Fathers slash their
sons and yet
We hold our own
Blades in our teeth
Pretending we forget
There’s poison on
Your tongue, they lie
Spit or swallow
You’ll still die
If you don’t ask
They’ll never tell
you why

The tale I want
To tell’s not mine
They own it
The warp of truth
The families twist
But generations wove it
Speak the secrets
Sin and shame
Abused, abuser
Pick a name
Save your frightened
Children from the same
Tell the tale
We all can share
The blame

Lose the Sunglasses

I’M NOT THE SUN

I’m not the sun
not nearly bright enough
or hot enough
to brighten your day
warm your frozen ground
No
I’m not the sun
I don’t command your orbit
order your seasons
compel your very life
I’m a little light
warmer than the candle
I hold to you
if you let me
I can
brighten a moment
encourage a smile
warm a bit of your heart
I’m not the sun
not the brightest star
in your sky
but I have light
and love
and laughter to share
if you’ll just look
my way