He may not have taught me to be a writer, but my grandpa did teach me how to tell a story. From a very young age, I marveled at how he could capture people’s attention, drawing them in with just a single sentence.
“Did I ever tell you about the girl name Virple?”
“You want to talk about artists? How about I show the self-portrait a beaver did of himself?”
The beaver really did do that, by the way. The little fella used his teeth to gnaw a log and chip away until it looked as though a beaver was climbing up and around it. It really is the darndest thing you’ve ever seen, and Grandpa certainly isn’t overselling it. You don’t have to look closely and squint your eyes like trying to find the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, the thing is most certainly a beaver. It has a tail, it has eyes, it has a snout. It’s a beaver. Made by a beaver.
But Grandpa had stories that didn’t necessarily need a prop. If I learned anything from him on how to make a story work, it is intonation. It is a gift passive-aggressive Southerners have down to a science. He knew exactly which words to emphasize in a sentence to get the maximum humor. He could accomplish so much saying so little, such as when he told us how he and Grandma fell in love. As Grandpa tells it, he would go over to her house and they would sit on the old porch swing. “And there we were,” he said so innocently, following it up by elaborating “Just swinging.” Grandpa would always deliver these last words with the raise of an eyebrow or with a wry grin to insinuate that, while he firmly believed none of us grandkids should ever so much as touch someone of the opposite gender without putting a ring on it first, that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the most innocent kid you ever met either.
He taught me how to keep eye contact with a room, as most of his stories were recalled around a crowded dinner table. When he chose to look at you during his stories, it felt like this tale was intended for you and you alone. The rest of the people sitting around were simply observers of your one-on-one conversation.
Grandpa’s loud voice served him well, as he had the ability to be loud without shouting (a skill I like to believe I have myself). With his slight Missouri twang, he often reminded me of the old comedians of the South like Andy Griffith or Tim Conway. In fact, we used to sit around the table and listen to old Griffith tapes, like the story of his first football game. You could hear in Grandpa’s stories how much he picked up from guys like this and the longstanding tradition of storytelling in my neck of the woods.
In fact, when I think back on my time with him, I recall very few conversations. Honestly, we didn’t have too much of a back and forth. He and my grandma were never much for questions, in part, because they knew they weren’t going to like the answers. It is an approach I can respect and, most of the time, appreciate, as I doubt my life choices are something Grandpa was ever particularly enthused about given that they produced no husbands nor babies, just a couple of seemingly nonsensical college degrees and a life surrounded by “degenerates”. I always think his choice not to ask questions was a loving one. Rather than pry into things that he disagreed with, we had an unspoken understanding we would focus on the things that made us both happy, and few things on my family vacations made me as happy as Grandpa telling me a good story, even if it was one I heard a dozen times before.
My personal favorite is the story of his classmate with the unfortunate name of Virple. I’ve heard it at least five or six times over the years, often at my own urging. Like a good straight man setting up the joke for his comedian partner, I would tee up Grandpa with a story of a classmate with an odd name, knowing this was to follow:
“Well, that is a weird name, but I don’t think it compares to the girl we knew growing up named Virple…”
I posted on Facebook the other day trying to see if any of my cousins remembered the details of Virple’s plight. I was surprised to hear others hadn’t heard the story, but what really shocked me was to discover how many stories I hadn’t heard over the years. My cousin Joel chimed in with his favorite, which sounds like a doozy I am pretty sad to have missed:
“I remember Hootie, who lives in a film roll container and is in charge of turning on the refrigerator light.”
Other cousins brought up the porch story, some sort of chicken plucking story, and my mom reminded me of the time her dad decided girls weren’t allowed to drive the tractor anymore. I thought I would be sad to hear of all the tales I missed out on, but the predominant response was a sense of relief. In a family with 16 grandkids, the Virple story felt like my own. I’m sure others have heard it, but knowing I was the only one who really remembered it makes me think maybe Grandpa and I shared a little secret of our own after all. Maybe each of us grandkids had our own favorite story and he knew which ones to trot out for which kids.
Though he is still with us, Grandpa is in such a state I can’t really ask him myself. Instead, all I can do is recount my favorite stories with the family. Most importantly, I can continue to write and try to tell my own stories, hearing his drawl in my head influencing which words to emphasize, what direction to look in, and which story will go straight to the heart of people I care about.