My mom has a mess of cousins. I’ve grown up knowing them. They live in different places, different states. Occasionally, 2 or 3 or 12 of the cousins will get together. When they do, the always tell The Stories. Sometimes it happens early – like upon meeting up. Sometimes it’s after a few drinks. But it always happens. Always. The Telling of The Stories is a ritual. I’ve yet to sit with extended family and NOT tell The Stories. I don’t know what I’d do if that happened. It would be a sure sign to me that my family had been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by automatons. Even if the Mother Automaton could tell me my birth weight and size of the episiotomy that went along with my entrance into this world, but didn’t begin to tell The Stories in the presence of Family, I would surely question her authenticity. It would, in fact, be a dead give-away.
This weekend, my mom and two of her cousins got together. I was lucky enough to be there too. The Stories started after dinner. My mother grew up in West Virginia in a small coal mining town in the mountains. And if that’s not enough to fill the story box for years of get-togethers, add to it that her grandfather owned a lumber mill and her father was the town doctor. Add to that an extended family of mine that includes a great uncle who lost his leg on the railroad and a great grandmother who graduated college, a great aunt who died at 17 and a second cousin who went into a set of bushes and came out engaged and you’ve got generations of anecdotes. It’s more than folk lore. It’s the stuff of legends. I’ve heard all of The Stories before. About Dick Palmer (yes, that’s his real name) and the condemned movie theaters he owned. About Erma – the live in who helped raise the family – who was mean enough to my uncles that eventually they cracked and chased her with a broom until she agreed to lighten up. About my grandfather – the small town doctor who while stitching a man’s head asked him how he was injured.
Man: Oh, I fell and hit my head on the ketrouck
Grandfather: On the WHAT?
Man: The ketrouck.
Grandfather: What the hell is a Ketrouck?
Man: Oh you know doc, it’s a rock ……. sort of scooped out, ………we feed the cats out of it.
Dick Palmer, Erma, The Cat Rock, I’ve heard them all. I never get tired of them. I laugh each time like they are new. I add details – even though I wasn’t there – when details are left out or forgotten by my elders. I’ve retold The Stories myself. They are now, in many ways, My Stories. I’ve earned them. They are a part of me. Second nature. Like walking, breathing or putting on nail polish while driving – I don’t even think about it.
Somewhere along the way, each time The Stories are told, I am forgotten. Not just me, anyone who wasn’t actually there, didn’t actually grow up living The Stories. Through the years I’ve watched spouses Get Forgotten. I’ve watched grandchildren Get Forgotten. I’ve watched my sister, my cousins, current friends and young children all Get Forgotten. It isn’t insulting. It’s just reality. They try, those who are telling The Stories, to include you. They occasionally try to segue into your life as their laughter dies down, “So … when did you two meet?” or “You were in the marching band, growing up, weren’t you, honey?” or some such thing. But quickly enough, the conversation turns back to Frog Morton or Second-Gear Hemry and well, once again, you Get Forgotten.
It was during one of these attempts to include me into the conversations this weekend that my mother’s cousin asked me where I was living now. “Kansas City” I said, eager to get back to The Stories. I couldn’t care less about Being Included. I just want to laugh on the fringes. “There’s a song about Kansas City, isn’t there?” said one cousin. And soon all the elders were trying to find the song. What was the song? A song about Kansas City. They hummed a bit. They squinted and hit the table with fists. They looked up, at each other, back at the table. Oh what is that song? They all cried.
“I can hear it in my head!” one of the cousins shouted out. “I can HEAR IT!”
“Then SING it!” another shouted. “Sing it and save us!”
“I can’t! I can hear it in my head but I can’t sing it!”
“AGHHH” my mother shouted as she tried unsuccessfully to pry the song from her head. “It’s right there!” she said while pointing to her head, “right there!”
I knew the frustration. I’ve done that before. Heard songs in my head and been unable to sing them. As clear as they are inside my brain, the moment I try to produce them, it all falls apart – they are muddled and sound nothing like the symphony in my brain. Unrecognizable. I watched the cousins all try to sing the song. They kept trying and laughing and trying again. One would sing a word and then la la la and another would jump in but they couldn’t quite find the right melody.
I knew the song. I could’ve sung it. The song is “Goin to Kansas City.”
But I didn’t sing it. I just sat there. I know I should have sung it. I should have set them free. I should have hummed or whistled or belted out the tune. But I didn’t. Not because I wanted them to be frustrated but because I was stunned. Stunned because I recognized something. Something huge. I couldn’t quite place it at first. But there was something there. Something about how they were skimming around a thought unable to pin it down. Something about them having the knowledge bumping around in their heads but not being able to articulate it. I just sat and watched. Watched them fumble. Become frustrated and fumble some more.
Eventually the cousins moved on. Eventually the pull of The Stories was too great and they were back at it. The song about Kansas City was forgotten. But the moment stayed with me. It wasn’t until I was on the plane last night flying home that it hit me.
I’ve forgotten my song.
For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to fit back into my life. I’ve been trying to find my pace again, trying to remember who I am, who I was. I know that person. I know her so very well. I know how she reacts and thinks. I know what she loves and what she tolerates. I know what makes her laugh. I know how easy it is for her to forgive and smile. I know her desires. I know what she needs. What she gives. I can hear her, in my head. She’s so real to me. She’s right there. Right there. And the moment I try to conjure her up, she’s gone. Instead something else comes out. Something garbled, different.