Tell Me a Story

My muse of the moment, Clay, let me do some textual whining about not knowing what to write about, and then sent me to StoryCorps. It’s an oral history project based in New York, that involves people going to their story booths, and capturing personal stories, life stories. (The site also offers story kits for rent, but it’s not terribly cost effective.)

I don’t live anywhere near Manhattan, but I’m intrigued by the concept, and I’ve had a love of oral history as long as I can remember. I think it started with my grandmother talking about how much she loved the Red Cross, and about how she was in Panama with my grandfather during one of the world wars, and had to be sent home (with other military wives) on a commandeered cruise ship travelling a zig-zag course to avoid German submarines. As a child, I thought she was making it up, because the details would change from time to time, but the general structure never did.

I remember her talking about the blackout curtains in the housing in Panama, and how she used to keep the closet light on, when she was alone, waiting for my grandfather, and was terrified by someone walking by and telling her (through the window) “Turn out the light,” because a single beam in an otherwise darkened enclave can be seen miles out to sea.

After my grandmother died, I found the menu card from that zig zag trip – some kind of beef, and “jacket” potatoes, and it clicked that this wasn’t just some tale she made up to amuse small children, it had really happened.

My mother, ever the maverick, chose to flee her Italian Catholic upbringing, after I was born, and as a result, most of the cousins and aunts and uncles and various other loose relations are mere names to me – if they’re even that – and the stories my mother heard, I’ve never dreamed of. I’ve always felt kind of gypped about that. There’s a part of me deep inside that really wants a big family and late night conversations in the kitchen, stoked by strong coffee and canolli, or Stella D’oro anisette cookies. There’s a part of me that feels like my identity is lacking because I don’t know the family stories, and don’t have anyone to ask.

Two nights ago, while re-arranging the remnants of my grandmother’s knitting bags (re-discovered when we packed to move from California to Texas), I came across a folded scrap of paper, labelled “Xmas Struffle.” (At least, I think that’s what it says – my grandmother’s handwriting was cryptic at best.) Inside, it was titled “Pop Natale’s Recipe (also good for basic macaroni)” and there was a fairly basic pasta dough recipe scrawled there.

I googled for the term “struffle” – and you know something is obscure if Google comes up with nothing – and am left with a mystery. Was this a funky attempt at spelling an Italian word, by my grandmother whose language was ripped from her when her father insisted that his children speak only English and be American? Is it a family nickname for a beloved treat? Or did she hate the recipe because it reminded her of long hours in the family restaurant, which she despised being tied to?

I want to be a child again, and sit on the old brown and floral couch, the cushions covered with a soft cotton sheet, because it’s more comfortable that way, in the dim den, with my grandfather snoring in his ugly yellow recliner, and I want to plead, “Tell me a story.”

But there’s no one left to ask.