People are Made of Stories

People are Made of Stories January 14, 2021


My great aunt and great uncle had COVID-19.

They don’t anymore; they managed to pull through. Uncle is doing as well as before, but Aunt is more frail, and she had been frail to begin with. It might not be long now. I likely won’t see her again.

She is my blood relative; the last surviving sibling of my beloved grandfather who died in 2015.

This is the end of a generation.

Grandpa used to tell us stories about his childhood. He was an expert storyteller. I could never convey to you the liveliness and vibrancy he put into the telling of the stories, as if he were still right there, living them for the first time. It struck me this week, that it won’t be very long before everyone who witnessed those things firsthand will be gone. It won’t be Grandpa’s generation remembering the past anymore; it will be me remembering someone’s remembrance. And when you read this, it will be one more step removed, a text version of somebody’s memory of a lively story in the oral tradition, and that’s another kind of death.

Still, I keep trying to remember, and write them down.

Great Grandpa’s children didn’t call him “Dad” or “Papa,” but “Blippie.” His children also had nicknames; Grandpa was Chuck or Utch, and the others were Bud, Dottie, Tate, Tote and Pat. I never met Blippie, but I’ve seen photographs. He looked like an elongated version of my grandfather with a very high forehead. Blippie was of Welsh and Irish descent. His wife, Mary’s, people came from Greenbriar County, West Virginia. They were about 130% Irish at a conservative estimate, the proudest Irish people in the world. They gave some of their land to build a tiny Catholic church on, so that the priest who came to say Mass now and then wouldn’t have to say it from the back of his truck. The road that goes by the old farm has been called “Catholic Church Road” ever since. I’ve only seen one photograph of Great Grandmother Mary, a brown and gray one from when she was a teenager– a beautiful girl with dark hair and braids. Great Grandmother Mary died of a gall bladder condition when Great Aunt was a baby and Grandpa was not yet three.

Great Grandpa Blippie had the paperwork in hand to put his children in an orphanage, which is what widowed Catholic men did in the 1920s, but he just couldn’t bear to. His children stayed with him. They tumbled around the house and were raised by housekeepers. Their dog, Pluto, walked them to the Catholic school in the mornings and waited outside until school let out to walk them home; he did this every school day for more than a decade. When Great Aunt graduated from the Catholic school, the nuns gave Pluto a degree as well.

Grandpa had a paper route. He delivered papers to everybody in the neighborhood and insisted to Blippie that he would pay for his own room and board with the money he made. He memorized the obstacles and dangers of every block of his route; he always had a paper rolled up and ready to stuff in the mouth of the barking dog who lived at one house. Once the dog had a paper in his mouth, it would stop playing vicious and act friendly, and bring the paper back to its master without a sound.

Once, Grandpa made the mistake of asking his brother, Bud, to do him a favor: “I’ll give you a quarter if you go collect the weekly paper money for me.” Bud went and collected the money, which came to a few dollars. And then he kept it. Bud insisted that since he had done the work of collecting the money, the money was something he earned. Grandpa couldn’t convince him of how a paper route really worked. They quarreled about it for a long time. I don’t think Uncle Bud paid Grandpa back in all the years they were alive, even though they joked about the paper route money whenever they were together. Once, when they were very old men, Grandpa leant Uncle Bud a few dollars while they were on a trip. Uncle Bud said “Put it on my tab.”

One afternoon, Grandpa made the mistake of letting Great Aunt Pat deliver the papers for him, but she dumped half of them down a storm drain when she got tired. Grandpa went to every house that didn’t get a paper to personally apologize and tell them not to pay him for that day. But every single customer who lost a paper still paid Grandpa the full amount at the end of the month. Grandpa always told that story with awe in his voice– all these decades later, he couldn’t believe how kind his neighbors were.

One evening, Grandpa and the children caused an emergency that the whole town remembered ever afterwards. There was an enormous vacant lot outside their house where the grass grew very high, and the children liked to walk back and forth on the grass to tamp it down. One day, they walked single file to make “hallways” in the grass, and then they trampled patches of grass in the shape of a square, to make “rooms.” One of the rooms they designated the lobby, and another the kitchen; they made a stove in the kitchen out of rocks. The rest of the rooms were bedrooms. The children played hotel all afternoon. Then my father went inside to take a bath, but Pat stayed behind. Pat wanted to see if you could really cook in the rock stove. She went inside for some matches.

And that’s how she started a fire that burned down the entire vacant lot, before Grandpa had gotten out of the bath.

“I was singing in the tub and didn’t even hear the fire engines,” my grandpa said. You can’t understand how this story is comedy either unless you see his bewildered face as he tells about getting out of the bath and finding all the excitement happened without him.

In the summers, Grandpa and his siblings stayed with their Aunt Vossie, way out in the mountains.

I never saw a photograph of Aunt Vossie; for all I know she never had a picture taken. She was already old when my Grandpa lost his mother. I imagine her looking like Aunt Em in The Wizard of Oz and having a similar temperament. She ran a great big farm and a whole team of hired hands. Her house was a very well-equipped farmhouse for that era in that part of Appalachia; it even had running water, of a sort. There was a pipe set up from the spring to the kitchen spigot, and the spigot kept running constantly because if she turned it off, the pipes would rust.

My grandfather’s summer job was to bring Aunt Vossie’s hired hands water. This was a full-time occupation. He had a bucket and a place to play and wait near the spring. Every time the hired hands yelled “Water boy, water boy!” my grandfather would run to the spring with his bucket, fill it, and run to the cornfield. The hired hands gulped dipper after dipper of water, more water than you could imagine one man could hold; he ran back and forth with the bucket until they were all satisfied, and then he went to play until it was time to do it again.

One particularly hot day, Grandpa heard the hired hands shouting “Water boy, water boy!” He got his bucket and ran. But when he got there, he found Aunt Vossie’s enormous collie dog had gotten to the spring first. The dog’s name was Compy because when he first wandered up to the farmhouse, Aunt Vossie had said “We got comp’ny!” Compy was making himself comfortable in the spring. He wasn’t being tidy about it. The water was cloudy and filmed with shed collie hair.

Grandpa stood staring at the spring.

“Water boy! Water boy!” insisted the farm hands. “Where’s my water?”

“Compy’s in the spring!” shouted Grandpa.

One of the farm hands came to see what the delay was. He said “That’s all right, just wait.”

My grandpa waited. The dog got out of the spring. After that, it only took several minutes before the clean water bubbling up from underground had washed away the remains of Compy’s afternoon dip, and the spring water looked clean again. Grandpa fetched his bucket of water for the farm hands, and they drank it.

You’re not getting the true impact of that story because Grandpa isn’t telling it to you. You should have seen the awkward trepidation on his face when he said “Compy’s in the spring!” and the relief when it all came out right. You can’t understand why this story is the funniest thing in the world unless you’ve seen it acted out by an old Welsh-Irish-American man with a high forehead.

I think Aunt Vossie’s farm was where Grandpa got his aversion to chicken, and the reason Great Aunt is a vegetarian as well. Being an impressionable child from in town witnessing Aunt Vossie dispatch a chicken would have that effect.

I also think the farm in West Virginia is where Grandpa got his love of nature. He was an avid hiker, gardener and birdwatcher his entire life. He had a house on a triple lot with an orchard; he brought us great big grocery bags of fruit in the summer. Once I rode to a family reunion in West Virginia in the back of his mini van, and the trunk was piled with hundreds of fresh tree-ripened peaches. The smell of the van was tantalizing; I kept reaching behind me for a snack.

I suppose my grandfather’s garden is the reason why I love to garden— I am the third generation who owes it to Aunt Vossie and the hired hands. I suppose his love of nature and the family reunions in West Virginia are why I love nature so much.

I wonder how much of Grandpa’s personality was built out of stories, stories I don’t know, stories he heard from Blippie and Aunt Vossie and even Mary.

I wonder how much of who they were, was made up of stories they heard.

Stories are the most powerful force the world has ever known, because stories are what people are made of.

And now I’ve given you some of mine.


Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.

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