Unbelievers on Peary Street

This is the second of four posts using stories from Peary Street to explain the first of twelve ways that storytelling defines creativity in the way we talk to each other, a process that I call symmentropy.

First rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling promotes understanding and meaning

“You don't really believe that!”

A simple sentence that became a symbol of rejection and a rallying cry for respecting the views of others. My mother would not have believed herself capable of hurting any of her children, but that sentence, repeated so many times, was her flogger, her passive aggressive weapon of indoctrination. Shared stories build knowledge, but rejected stories create distance and distrust. My family mastered numerous ways of preventing stories from being shared. Overt rejection is just one of them.

The first method was silence, censorship was an important part of my father's approach to parenting. As children we frequently heard, “that is not our kind of” joke, song or person. I used to marvel at his ability to flirt, shamelessly taking every opportunity to charm any woman within the sound of his voice. I believe that it was harmless, but then who knows what stories others may tell, and that he had developed the ability to stand up in public so that he could read greeting card sentiment with a sincerity that brought tears to your eyes. I was so impressed with this ability because it was so contrary to the person that I knew as a parent. He also had the ability to hide his stories and feelings to prevent the kind of sentiment that he seemed so fond of in public.

Unknown Brother
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My Uncle Jack with my Uncle Ed, long before they were my uncles.

We all knew that my mother had an older brother who died before she was born. It did not surprise us that she did not have stories of her brother. What about Jack? I have seen pictures of my father with his 3 brothers, the two I met many times and the one that I never heard the first word about. I have tried to imagine a set of emotions that would prevent me mentioning my dead brother to my children. The story of Jack is actually less interesting that the story of how he never got mention from my dad in any conversation with his family. Was the story too hard for him to tell? Was the sadness of his parents reflected in his ability to discuss it? Was he protecting his own children from the harsh reality that it could happen to any one of us?

My dad's inability to share his stories with his children created a closed system for the Peary Street cell. Not long after my father died, we got an email from the Canadian descendants of my great-grandfather and his brother. They were organizing the annual family reunion near Seaforth, Ontario and had found us through Story Chip. They were interested in knowing the stories of the family members south of the 49th parallel and invited us to attend the gathering. We shared the emails with all of our brothers and sisters and received one response from a sister who was certain that it was some kind of cyber scam and that we should proceed with extreme caution.

My sister ignored the warnings and made the journey to Ontario to join in the festivities. While she was there she told her stories and listened to theirs. She came home with photographs, newspaper clippings and stories, lots of them. We learned more about my father's family from that one weekend than we did in his nearly 90 years of living. As my sister shared the story of her Canadian adventure, she got to the picture of my father and his 3 brothers. She had been as surprised as I was when she first saw the picture but very little information was available.

What we know is that my grandfather entered the US in Detroit. He married my grandmother (apparently in Michigan with an unknown number of Canadians in attendance) before moving to Pennsylvania for no particular reason. Once in Pennsylvania, he did not have much further contact with the Ontario part of the family after about 1930. Was this another part of the unpleasantness of the depression? Was there some sort of rift? We do not really know, but we have pictures of my grandmother with her four sons that were sent back to Canada. Maybe the family pictures stopped when Jack died.

I always knew that my father was a very private person but I never knew the extent of his reluctance let others see things through his eyes. I remember when his mother was killed in a car accident when I was about 6 or 7 and he immediately left for Pennsylvania, but I do not remember him ever discussing the accident or him telling stories about growing up her son or anything. The only story that came of that incident was the hard feelings that developed when his father remarried two or three years later and that story was vaguely told by my mother to explain why we did not visit our grandfather when we visited her family.

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As my father grew older, he invited us to share our vacation trips with our friends. We frequently had people sleeping on the floor all over the beach front cottages that we rented. He had so much fun with the hordes of people that he ended up building a six bedroom house at the beach that regularly hosted all the friends and family he could gather. Was he trying to make up for the family stories that he could or would not share? Was his own family life too awful to talk about? I have to believe that he lived for the moment, treasuring what he had as he knew the stories of sadness and pain that were waiting in the closet. He valued the gatherings more than the memories and stories the gatherings created.

There are so many untold stories from his life that the only option I have is to guess at the meaning of the events that I experienced. Stories need someone to do the telling and someone else to do the listening. Without either, imagination dominates without any pretense of shared understandings. I can imagine many reasons why my father held onto his stories, but the one I like best is that my mother would look at him and say, “Oh Tom, you don't believe that!” I know I did not have to hear that often before I stopped talking. I imagine he did not have to hear it often either.

How many other explanations could my family imagine for my father's reluctance to tell his stories? I am sure that each of us can construct a reasonable story from our own experiences, but the magic of stories is that each chip of story adds to the complete story. When you lose just one story, you lose understanding and create confusion. When we get to pick the stories that we use to explain events, we can add richness or hide subtle meaning. With fewer stories to choose from, we are forced to imagine.

Storytelling has a Goldilocks element of too much, too little or just the right amount of shared information for groups to manage their interactions. Jack's story does not prevent siblings from working together, but clearly sets values for a family. In the next post, these values become an obstacle to helping our parents when they needed it.

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