What we talk about when we talk about ourselves

Now and Again

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When my aunt Jane went to Michigan State University, she minored in speech and theater. For her costuming final, she had to sew a court jester costume, and she made her mother, my grandmother, bus more than 100 miles to campus to sew the costume through the night until she produced an appropriately polka-dotted outfit. Nana was domestic in all the ways a housewife of the ‘60s should be. We still have big bulky quilts that she sewed decades ago all around our house, and each Christmas, we hang up stockings she knitted for us. After Jane turned in Nana’s costume, she got a B.

I love that story. I’ve heard it two or three times and keep it filed away in my head as one of “Jane’s Stories.” My aunt Jane has a lot of stories. Stories about funny things her grandkids said when they were little, stories about the kids she works with at preschool, stories about growing up in Fremont, Michigan, and stories about my dad and grandfather driving around White Cliff asking people for money to bail my dad’s friend out of jail. My dad calls Jane the “keeper of Tinney family stories,” and while she undoubtedly holds the crown as the family bard, storytelling is a vein that runs strong throughout all the Tinneys.

My dad’s entire side of the family still lives in Michigan; Grand Rapids, to be more specific. At Beth’s house, dinners of corn on the cob and veggie burgers bleed into story slams, in which “I know a guy” is interrupted with “One time,” which is cut short by “The other day,” which is punctuated by “The craziest thing.”

There is the story of when Sam’s parents lived by the highway and a woman wandered into their living room to rock in a rocking chair. There is No-Underpants-Dan from swing club and the immutable “Holly Bibble.”

But when my mom — a Belli, not a Tinney — gets going, she starts laughing before she can get the first word of a story out.

“Steve told me — or was it Monique? Anyway, it was definitely when we were with Cookie, or Hazel?”

She’ll throw her hands up in exasperation.

“I can’t tell a story to save my life.”

Belli family stories ram into each other, unrehearsed. They bubble up, explode and recoil miraculously without an identifiable beginning, middle or end — an exercise in collective improvisation.

I don’t have a lot of stories from when I was a kid. My parents didn’t make it a point to rehash all the funny things I said. But what I do have is an entire plastic tub full of writing. Scraps of writing from kindergarten, letters I wrote to my mom, journals never finished, drawings with photo captions.

When I was younger, I had a conviction that I was going to be remarkably famous one day. Famous enough that my childhood bedroom would be preserved with exacting detail. People would walk though my old home and see where the bookmark was in my Junie B. Jones book and look carefully at the fine detail work on Nana’s quilt. Coupled with this would be an aggressive public demand for a point-by-point retelling of my early life. To this end, I wrote in excruciating detail about everything that happened in my life. I’ve never had a very good memory, and I knew that what I didn’t record would be lost entirely.

As I grew up, this obsession with recording and remembering every amusing anecdote for my later biographers manifested in different ways. I wrote long emails to Jane or my brother or my friend Naomi. They became capsules of everything funny that had happened to me that week, lofty musings about the nature of myself bookended by funny things I had overheard at school. I kept a note on my phone of funny quotes that my best friend Cade said called “Cade quotes” that soon ballooned into a more inclusive note simply entitled “quotes.”

I’ve always seen these stories and anecdotes as currency. When someone needs advice or consolation before meeting her high school boyfriend’s parents for the first time, it is great to offer hugs and say, “It will be OK,” but the real cure is hearing her father talk about driving across the state to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time and finding himself driving slower and slower until the car creaked up the driveway.

It still remains to be seen if I will ever be famous enough to have my diaries published or my early writings cataloged. Great historians may never care about how I felt the day after Barack Obama was elected or after I had my first kiss. My list of funny quotes from my best friends might never make it into the Library of Congress, and my columns may never be republished. But one day, I might forget all my stories when there are still people around who really want to hear them, or need to hear them, and even if they aren’t biographers, historians or my adoring public, at least I will have something to show them.

Kate Tinney writes the arts & entertainment column on shifting artistic contexts and perspectives. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.