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a great-grandstory

froggies315's picture

My Bibbie invented Gabazoogoo the Talking Dog when his grandsons were little.  My sister and I, Bib’s first great-grandchildren, grew up with Gabazoogoo too.  Stories rolled effortlessly off of Bib’s tongue, and when he spoke, it felt like I could sit still for an eternity, mesmerized by wisdom.  I knew that Gabazoogoo was make believe, but Bib had knack for combining the fantastical with the very real, and I know his stories helped me to learn this world.  

Bib lived in Florida, a plane ride away from my home in Pittsburgh, so we would only see him twice a year.  In the interim, my grandparents would tell of Gabazoogoo’s adventures around the globe.  My sister and I got these stories on Fridays when we would spend the night at their house.  I loved sleeping at my grandparents’ house.  The beds had soft, dark green flannel sheets, poofy pillows, and down comforters.  We would take bubble baths in my grandmother’s jacuzzi, and in the morning, my grandpa would make french toast with the leftover challah from the night before.  Above all else, my favorite part of this tradition were the stories my sister and I got after we had had our baths and climbed into our beds.  Sometimes we got a chapter from Winnie the Pooh or Little Women, but both my sister and I liked it better when the evening began with: “This is a story about Gabazoogoo the Talking Dog...”

When I got to middle school, the tradition ended because and I started to spend most Friday nights with friends.  But once, when I was 14, my parents went out of town for the weekend and I had to sleep at grandparents’ house.  I was too concerned with being cool to ask for a bubble bath or a bedtime story.  I ate Cheerios for breakfast.  In turn, my grandparents busied themselves with my younger brother and their newspapers.  It was mostly an awkward weekend.   

About a month later, my parents announced that they were getting divorced.  Later, I asked my mom when she knew.  She paused, looking at me with tired eyes.  I’m sure she knew that I was asking much bigger questions--questions about making hard decisions and trusting the people you love and forgiving them when they hurt you--and maybe she hesitated because she also knew that any story she told me would just become another story for me to cling to and resent.  But in that moment, I didn’t care about my mother’s predicament; I stared back at her, unrelenting.  Eventually, she let out a sigh, and began to talk.  She told me that she had decided for certain on that weekend they had gone out of town and my brother and I had stayed with my grandparents.  I never slept at my grandparents’ house again.  When I was 18, they moved to an apartment building in a different neighborhood.  They said that they wanted to be able to walk to their offices and that they didn’t want to worry about stairs or mowing the lawn.  

*    *    *

The summer after my mother left my father, I walked from Massachusetts to Canada.  It was hard.  Beyond the obvious physical challenge, I had to trust that a group of eight people could create everything we needed for seven weeks in the woods.  I know that a lot of people who spend time outside appreciate the simplicity of the experience.  For me, hiking through Vermont that summer was terrifying precisely because I learned that I need less than I have.  I spent hours, trudging down the path, and willing this lesson to go back into its hole because I was scared.  The scariest thing in the world is to not need a story.  As scared as I was, I knew that I did not need the story of my parents’ love for each other nor the story of why it didn’t work out.  I let these stories go.  It was hard.

When I came back to Pittsburgh for sophomore year of high school, I plunged into everything.  I joined the Think-a-Thon team, I played in the All City Orchestra, I did all of my homework, I worked in a lab, I mentored middle school students, I tutored second graders, I joined a Jewish youth group...I adapt.  Somehow, I’ve figured out how to revel in the confusing, unfinished story of my family.  These days, I am proud to be a character in it.    

Gabazoogoo the Talking Dog is still a part of this story too, though his overt presence at bedtime ebbs and flows as my family grows old and renews itself.  Soon, Gabazoogoo will become a part of my baby sister’s life.  I’m excited to watch and support Mira as she uses Gabazoogoo to make her own understandings, learns through all her stories that life is messy, and realizes that the messiness is what makes living so much fun.  

If Mira’s path ends up being anything like mine, she might discover, just as I am right now, that Gabazoogoo is more of a constant, gentle presence than a source for answers.  Our Bibbie was a wise, wise man, and he didn’t spin his tales to make sense of this incomprehensible word--he knew better than to try to do that.  Bib shared Gabazoogoo with us to ensure that his family would always know his love.  In his wisdom, he knew that he wouldn’t always be able to provide the physical comfort of a lap to sit on and a good conversation.  Through the legacy of my great-grandfather’s great story, I always have the simple safety of his great love.  

*    *    *

When Bib turned 90, his son, my Uncle Don, threw a party for him at his house in New York.  When my Bibbie was 90, I was only seven or eight, so my memory of this weekend is a little hazy, but I vividly remember the song we sang at the end of the celebration.  Before everyone left, four generations of my extended family stood on the lawn and belted out We Shall Not be Moved, the old folk song.  My grandmother was on the guitar, and I think my uncle played his fiddle, everyone else sang.  

I love this song, but it tells only half of a story.  Everyone knows that the tree standing by the water moves.  It’s alive!  With each passing year, it grows taller and fatter, it sheds its leaves and then grows them again, it sways in the music of the wind.  Eventually, as the water carves out the earth and erodes the bank, the tree gets swept away.  The water carries it to a new place where it can tell new stories.  And do you know what?  Despite my family's insistent singing that Sunday morning, we all moved too.  Bib moved from the earth, my grandparents moved from their home, my parents moved from each other, my sister moved from Pittsburgh, I moved from finished stories.  We’re still moving, all together.  I don’t think we’ll ever stop.     
I wrote parts of this about a month ago in response to my experience at my younger brother's bar mitzvah.  Last weekend, I decided to try and move my writing from a scattered compilation of memories to a more coherent story.  I hesitated at first because I was wary of jumbling all of this together and staining it with our conversations from class.  Ultimately, it was my hesitation which compelled me to keep working these memories.  What I’ve done is smushed them together, gone about my life for a few weeks, added and removed things to make a story, cried, shared my writing with a few people, thought about their reactions, added and removed things, and now I’m reflecting on the whole process.  What it feels like is that I’ve made a story and that the memories in this story can only exist in the way that I’ve just presented them.  I haven’t decided yet if this is good, or bad, or good and bad.


Anne Dalke's picture


Hard to know how/where to enter here
(or whether to enter @ all!) and/but/so
...I'll just speak in/to a couple of spots:

*Ayla's reading of your 14-year-old encounter as one about knowing when we have exhausted our we ever?

* your saying that the "scariest thing in the world is to not need a story.... I let these stories go.  It was hard"--> and/but/then you found some others, yes? So we're never really without stories. Just, sometimes -- ofttimes over the course of a life -- we need to let go of a particular story that doesn't serve us well any more.

* And that's a trick that's very hard to learn, one I found myself struggling with last spring, in recognition that we need to eliminate possibilities in order to make space for the creation of new ones (or: "knock things out" to make room for "adding things"…. and this is hard for me; I'm a clinger!).

* your wariness about "staining" this story with our conversations from class [this is the passage I really want to talk about!] --> I'd like to understand more about the presumptions of "purity" here, and offer a counternarrative (this comes from a 1994 essay by Maria Lugones about "Purity, Impurity, and Separation"). Lugones uses the image of "curdling" to evoke her conception of a multiple selfhood which resists the ordering logic of purity, of that which cannot be divided:

"the model of a model for ..border-dwellers, of people who live in a crossroads, people who deny something we do in resistance to the logic of control, to the logic of purity....that we curdle testifies to our being active subjects, not consumed by the logic of contorl. Curdling...can become an art of resistance, metamorphoseis, transformation...."

Thanks for sharing your evolving family stories here. As the semester draws to a close, I would love to have them "stain" the conversations we are having in class, crossing the borders between academic and personal narratives, refusing the separation between them....

froggies315's picture

I smiled at your thoughts on

I smiled at your thoughts on letting stories go.  Here's a paragraph that I didn't include at the end of my reflctions on making this event.  It speaks to this predicament.

It’s a good thing for me to have realized the bridges between my experiences, but if I want to make space for new kinds of experiencing, I know that I won’t always be able to rely on this story, on all of my other stories, or on any story.  I think this means I need to figure out another way to be in the world...a way without stories.  I wonder if there is a way without stories.

I thought about trying to write my final paper on this, but it is sort of an impossible idea.  Perhaps the fact that we all need stories is one of those rare absolute truths of the world.

Ayla's picture

More on I asked her when she knew

I love this sentence.  It's such a curious thing to ask.  It implies that you had already moved past the why and the how.  Why did she fall out of love?  Why didn't she try harder to work it out?  How could this have happened?  These are questions that are normally asked.  No, you just went straight to the question of when did your mother decide that she had exhausted her options? And you said it too, the question was about when do you know to make hard decisions and trust the people you love and forgiving them when they hurt you.  But, ultimately it wasn't about forgiveness or trust.  I think it's about the point at which she decided she wasn't leaving anything worth saving behind.  I'm projecting here and I know it.  Maybe you wouldn't say she felt like she wasn't leaving anything behind, but that's how I would feel if it had happened to me.  I broke up with a 5 year boyfriend about a year ago, and it was a long time coming.  I reached a point where I felt like I wasn't going to miss anything - where I was ready to put myself first - where I was tired of being alone - where I didn't hurt anymore - where I didn't think I was leaving anything worth saving behind.  I was leaving an old self, an old love, an old part of me.  A piece that I didn't want anymore, and a piece I didn't want to remember.  I don't want to say this essay is about healing, because that's too cliche for me.  I think this essay is about asking those hard questions, facing those hard questions, and accepting that there isn't an answer.  There isn't an answer.  That's hard for me to absorb, and I think that is the reasn why I love this sentence so much.  Because it has an answer, and it doesn't.

Ayla's picture

I asked her when she knew

This is my favorite line - admist my favorite paragraph - in your essay because it symbolizes exactly how you are in the moment that I read your essay.  When you asked your mom when she knew, she is weary and she hesitates to answer.  But you didn't care and you waited until she answered as best as she could.  In this moment, you are unrelenting.  You are honest and simple; your 14 year old self was asking those bigger questions behind one that demanded an easy  answer.  In your essay, you take on the same demeanor.  You write in a way that doesn't let your reader hide behind sentences to escape the real message.  It reminds me of a certain singing posture I was taught.  If you stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your hands down and just sing, it is beautiful.  I can picture you telling your story, standing, facing the audience, not fiddling with anything or making gestures to make your words more meaningful (because they are meaningful enough).  It is a front grounded story.  I think you say what you mean, and I think there is an advantage to that.  I think the way your essay turned out reflects your process of writing it and what you wanted to say in it.  It seems like it took a while for you to get it out, and maybe in the early stages you were fiddling and making hand gestures to add meaning to the words.  But, you took care to not stain it with our conversations from class - not to stain it with anything exterior, I think.  As a result, your essay turned out starkingly pure and beautiful.

froggies315's picture

Thanks for these kind words.

Thanks for these kind words.