It’s the stories that live on

It’s the stories. The stories of long ago, the stories of yesterday, the stories we will tell of what’s happening as we tell the stories of long ago and of yesterday. Pictures aid us, prompt us, guide us to those stories; but it’s the stories themselves that get passed down, long after the person who starred in them is gone.

I come from good story tellers. Dad’s side had a few good tale-tellers who could turn a phrase rivaling the best of them: “This’ll put hair where you ain’t got none,” is one of my favorites, said about a strong cup of coffee; “Put it where the sun don’t shine,” and, “Who tole you?” Quite possibly one of the reasons I can play reporter with the required healthy does of skepticism.

My maternal grandfather was a master storyteller, even though his English was limited. Even as a youngster I was amazed at how he could hold my interest, even though I had trouble understanding his words.

My grandfather wove a story. He wove it the way a knitter creates a pattern into a sweater: word by word, stitch by stitch, sentence by sentence, row by row, each carefully chosen adjective adding to the mix, the way each carefully chosen color adds to the pattern. Few adjectives, because his English was so limited. That taught me that less can be more. His eyes would sparkle, he would look you in the eye, he would use his hands just enough. He would smile, and laugh just a little.

My grandfather would start rolling a cigarette when he started telling a story, carefully putting just the right amount of tobacco in the Zig-Zag brand rolling paper, rolling it up, lighting it with his clunky, square silver lighter, stopping his story now and again as he did that to create suspense, anticipation. It gave me a chance to savor his words, to mull them over, to learn patience as he spoke in his own time, between puffs, all the while fiddling with the lighter. And all the while his eyes would sparkle.

I suspect he got a kick out of a grandchild being so enthralled with him. I know as I get older how much I delight in hearing from my sister’s children. They really want to talk to ME? My grandfather would’ve been in his late 80s. He must’ve gotten a kick out of it indeed.

He died when I was still a teenager; I only got a handful of those storytelling times with him, but I learned that I come from a line of good story tellers.

My aunts could always weave a story with the best of them. Mention a person, a place, or even a controversial subject, and you never got a long list of adjectives or banal rantings or mundane accounting of an opinion.

Nah. In my family, you got, “Who? One time, when we were…..” or “Let me tell you about the time…”

And so, as it is when people live, so it is when they die. We sit around and talk stories, about them, about ourselves with them, about others with them. Then we veer off and tell stories about ourselves, in any way tangentially connected, one little thread leading to another, connected by color or design, or scheme, or any such thing that causes the human brain to jump from one thought to the next.

My aunt Cil was a hairdresser; dare I say “the family hair cutter?” So, we talked hair stories when she died. Hair-got-cut-the-way-we-didn’t-like-it stories. Hair-got-cut-in-the-kitchen stories. Hair-got-cut-the-way-SHE-wanted-it-cut stories.

She was barely a shadow of her younger self before she died, at age 97, and after Alzheimer’s wreaked havoc in her brain for more than a decade. Her hands could no longer cut hair; her mind and speech could no longer ask for a decent hairdo.

But once, she could.

And we remembered that for her, her nieces and nephews and remaining sisters.

We remembered the time she cut off the waist long hair and curls of two nieces, to the absolute horror of their father, who had no idea until he got home from work that day. Many of us secretly suspected that their mother knew quite well what was coming and welcomed the end of long mornings untangling the hair of pre-schoolers every morning. But she, of course, played dumb, and Aunt Cil bore the blame.

We remembered the running away, up the stairs, slamming the door and putting feet up against it (no lock for kids’ bedrooms in the 1960s), waiting for her to leave, while, no doubt, she laughed with her sister till the tears fell.

We remembered how the ones who lived close by would walk to her shop and walk back with curlers in their hair, or the “big hair” of the day.

We remembered how all our haircuts looked the same, like barbershop cuts for girls and boys alike, until we reached a certain age. I suspect, perhaps naively, that she did it on purpose to make the job easier for our mothers, her sisters.

We remembered how she so loved her husband, Al, the quintessential regular guy, with a regular job, with a low key personality. They found each other late in life, to the dismay of many, and the delight of many as well.

She had her own salon in the 60s (maybe the 50s, even), right up through the 70s, maybe even the early 80s. No one seems to remember exactly when she retired.

She told me that she took the train to Boston for hairdressing school. That would’ve been in the 1950s, I guess. I remember looking at her with deep surprise, and a new-found respect. All the way to Boston? Every day? For how many weeks?


What I didn’t realize until I was much older, was how pioneering she was to have her own business, a woman, in the early 60’s (maybe even the 50s). She was “on her own,” done with the mill bosses of New Bedford’s textile era.

She had her own place. Any hairdresser of a certain age will remember Ivey’s Beauty Salon (or was it “Ivy’s”?), because there were so few, and even fewer owned by women.

We managed to find a census from back then 1940. It listed my grandfather as a mill worker making $800/year; one of my other aunts as making $392, and another making $450. Then it listed Cil as a “forelady,” making $728 that year, at 21 years old. Her father made $800.

There must be a story behind that.