My maternal grandfather (known to one and all as “Skinny”) was a mechanic who owned a garage and service station in a small Wyoming town. It was the kind of place where people gathered to exchange information about hunting and fishing, the weather (which was mostly bad), the state of the country and the state of the state and (of course) each other.
One of the regulars was a man who rarely saw a sober moment. All of his meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — came straight out of a bottle. The man told my grandfather that he drank to forget.
He was a veteran of World War I, this man. On one occasion when his unit was rushed by the enemy, he ran a German soldier through with a bayonet. The soldier’s head flopped back and his helmet fell off, revealing the surprised face of a young teenager with bright yellow hair.
“He was just a boy, Skinny,” the man said over and over. “Just a boy. And I killed him.”
Each night that vet was greeted by the boy’s ghost who sat on the foot of the bed, a look of eternal surprise on his ageless face.
I heard my grandfather tell this story more than once. At the dinner table. On road trips. In his study crammed with books and photos, as well as the polished rocks and arrowheads he’d collected since he was a kid.
And the reason I heard my grandfather tell this story is that I didn’t have a choice, frankly. I didn’t own an iPad. An iPod. A Nintendo DS. A smartphone. A dumb phone. My ways of escape were limited. The only available option was to tune out, which I did sometimes. I’ll admit it.
Before the proliferation of Technologies that Divert (see above list), being able to “tune out” was a useful skill. It saved you from mind-numbing boredom — the kind you regularly experienced in class or at church or during long drives across the Nevada desert or anyplace where you were part of a captive audience. Tuning out allowed you to do a little daydreaming — imagining what you’d say to the Academy, for instance, if you ever won an Oscar. That sort of thing.
So yeah. I totally knew how to tune out. But more often than not when my grandfather and the other adults in our family started telling stories, we kids hovered around the edges of their conversations — eager to hear old gossip, to glean information and opinions about a range of subjects. Politics. Sports. Religion. TV. Movies. Current events and old scandals.
Which brings me to this question: Do kids sit around and listen to family stories anymore?
Or are they too busy playing “Angry Birds” on their parents’ smartphones? Or their own smartphones?
OK. This is not an anti-technology screed. What would be the point? Technology isn’t going away. And yes. A lot of things are much, much better now than they used to be. I personally LOVE not having to walk a million miles when my car breaks down in the middle of the night in the middle of (see above) the Nevada desert.
Thank you, cellphones!
It’s just that I wonder how today’s children access family stories now — something I think is crucial. Family stories provide us with ways of understanding who we are, why we do the things we do, what we value.
Take the story about my paternal grandmother who told her husband she didn’t care where they lived ... as long as they lived by a school. My grandmother wanted her children to have the kind of education that she herself never had. See what I mean about understanding where our values come from?
So tell me: How do families share those kinds of stories in a wired age when kids no longer camp around the edges of adult conversation, waiting to hear?
Ann Cannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/anncannontrib.