Storytelling was the subject of my last blog, that is, how stories passed on within a culture affect behavior and beliefs of members of that culture. Today, I’m thinking about other kinds of stories, the silly ones that get told so often within families, workplaces, or friendship groups that they achieve the status of folktales.
When Ira Glass of This American Life fame came to Seattle last year, he told one family’s story that became a legend and kept the adult children amused for years. Dad told his kids that he had taken their mother’s ashes to a veterans’ cemetery for a no-cost interment, and instead, ended up pouring them out of the urn into the cemetery parking lot in disgust, when someone in the office told him there would be a small fee. As I recall the charge was $14. This became the feature story at every family event. Inevitably, someone would ask Dad if, when the time came, he wanted them to pour his ashes into the cemetery parking lot and not pay the fee. After Dad passed on, the children carried his ashes to the same cemetery, and were surprised when no one mentioned a fee. They repeated Dad’s story to an astonished office staff, women who had worked there for 30 years whose desks gave them a perfect view of the parking lot. They assured the family that no fee had ever been charged and that from their window vantage point they surely would have notice someone dumping ashes. I’m certain family dinners weren’t nearly as entertaining when this family history ended as a family mystery, but I’ll bet they’re still talking about it.
When I first worked for a school district, my desk sat a few feet from the desk of the secretary who scheduled substitute teachers. By 5 a.m every school day she started dialing. One winter day the superintendent chose not to cancel school on a day when snow was on the ground but buses could still travel. He made this decision too late for one French teacher, who called the substitute office at 8 a.m. and announced that he would not be coming to work that day, so he could teach the district a lesson about the timing of its snow-day decisions. The substitute secretary spent the day seething, because it was impossible to hire foreign language substitutes on such short notice. That evening the sky broke open and anyone who looked out a window knew that school would be closed the following day. My office mate came to work early and called the French teacher at 4 a.m.: “Since you were so upset about getting your information late, I wanted you to be the first to know that school is cancelled today and you don’t have to get up early.” We told this story at her retirement party and it lives even after her death.
Now we come to my story, which illustrates how friends create legends about each other. A colleague, a parent volunteer and I drove to the University of Washington to give a presentation to a class of school principals in training. My companions are both native Spanish speakers, so we used our time together for my Spanish practice. When we walked into the classroom, I said in Spanish that I needed a comb. The pronunciation of the Spanish word for “comb” is perilously close to the pronunciation of the word for a body part that unequivocally distinguishes men from women. My friends hushed me up and whispered that a student standing behind me had heard me and was laughing. Apparently, he spoke Portuguese. They were mortified by my mistake. Five years later the story is still alive and has been repeated over and over to new audiences. Recently it received a new, more elaborate ending. The storytellers, getting bored with the old version, added a more suggestive conclusion. I wonder how the story will end after yet another decade!
Beware to those whose stories spotlight other people’s embarrassing moments. My friend Claudia tried a tai chi class once and accidentally referred to it as Chai tea. I have told that story to many people, so many that in Starbucks yesterday I ordered a grande tai chi.