Are there stories in your family that are told over and over again? Are there family events that trigger a particular tale’s retelling—birthdays, anniversaries (wedding, birth, death)? Are there war stories repeatedly shared: one’s first day at college, for example, or the first day on a new job. This latter type may be literally about war: What happened in Viet Nam, Iraq, or Lebanon. Are you tired of hearing them, or do they never grow old? Do the stories acquire elegant variations each time they are repeated? Or, are the words used to tell them relatively fixed with any changes firmly discouraged?
In my family, there are several stories we’ve told many times. One of them is about my daughter’s birth. My former wife and I had spent several weeks practicing breathing exercises. They were supposed to help control the pain during the lead-up to the baby’s birth. We practiced multiple exercises at different tempos. We performed one of them to Pachelbel’s Canon. When she was finally in labor, I tried to get her attention to focus on her breathing. At one point, she looked at me as though I were some mortal enemy, and between clenched teeth, murmured, “I’ve decided not to have this baby. Let’s go home.” Well, that’s not what happened, of course. But the story is forever tied to the birth of my daughter.
A second story concerns my first performance class in college. I majored in piano but suffered from paralyzing stage-fright. At my first piano performance before my peers, I was to play Chopin’s Prelude op. 28 no. 1 in C Major. I should point out that the tempo marking is Agitato, which means “agitated.” That doesn’t sound like a tempo marking, but it is, typically around 98 beats per minute, probably about half my heart rate at the time. Anyway, I walked calmly to the piano, sat down, adjusted the stool, placed my hands above the keys, and began. The first two measures were satisfactory, but then the music went out of my head entirely. My fingers felt very squishy, like long spaghetti noodles. I made up the rest of the piece. I staggered back to my seat with sweat pouring from my face and sat down next to my piano teacher. “Wow,” I said to him. “It’s pretty amazing that I could make that up.” He turned to me and said, “Yes. But it would be much better if you learned the music.”
Once, I was waiting at a bus stop on Walnut Street in Philadelphia to catch the 27 bus home to Roxborough. A man joined me. He looked at me for several seconds then walked toward me. “Dr. Steinberg?” he asked. I told him no, that I wasn’t Dr. Steinberg. Then he said, “But you’re Jewish, right?” Well, over the years, I learned to be a bit cautious in answering that question. In this case, I told the man yes; I was Jewish. He then launched into a tirade. It seems that he had been in the same bookshop where I had been and overheard at least parts of an author’s talk about his new book.
He said, “When are you people ever going to stop talking about the Holocaust? My parents were German. And they were good people.” I tried to say that it was necessary for people who had lost family during that dark period to remember, write, and talk about it. But he would have none of it. He, himself, had a story to tell. I stepped away from him and turned my back to him. Not to be halted; however, he continued in the same fashion. Fortunately, my bus arrived, one that he was not waiting for, and I escaped.
Whether at the personal, folk, or national level, stories are part of who we are. They help define us, bring closeness where and when needed. And, of course, they need not all be dark tales. They can be, like the two family stories I described above, be funny or instructive.
At the end of the morning prayer service, I recite what is called “The Six Remembrances.” These are verses taken from the Bible where God specifically asks us to remember something in our history. The second one begins like this: “But beware and guard your soul scrupulously, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life.”
The man at the bus stop had a story he needed to share, a grievance he felt deeply, a story of devotion to his parents. It is a story, I’m sure, that he heard many times growing up. But I wish he had approached sharing it with me differently.
I came across a quote recently from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, something I want to remember when telling my own stories:
Here’s a beautiful example of Danny Kaye singing a story that brings in more light.
All the best,