Lying? No, Storytelling!

“What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today?” he’d ask.  My grandpa, puffing on his pipe.

Pleased to have his attention, and anxious to keep it, I’d rack my brain for a response.  Growing up in the suburbs in the 1950’s was pretty mundane.  Nothing of great interest ever seemed to happen to me.

So, I’d make things up.  Not lying, exactly.  Storytelling.

“I fell in the creek today,” I might tell him.  “Tried to walk across the log, but my foot slipped off .”

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“How’d you get out?” he’d ask, wisps of smoke curling around his head.

“Wasn’t deep,” I’d say.  “But don’t tell my Mum.”

“Nope,” he’d say.  “Be best not to go near the creek anymore, though.”  And he’d give me a broad wink.

On another occasion, I might tell him that my bike got stolen, but I managed to get it back.  Heroically.

“Wasn’t it locked” he’d ask.

“Yeah, the lock was across the forks of the back wheel.  But the guys who took it just picked it up and carried it.  That’s how I caught up to ‘em.”

“What did you say to them?”

“Nothin’ Grandpa.  When they heard me comin’, they dropped the bike and ran away.  I guess I scared ‘em off.”

“Sounds like,” he’d say.  “Maybe you should fasten your wheel to the bike rack from now on.  Be hard to take that.”  His blue eyes would sparkle, and I’d love that I made that happen.

He never tired of asking the same question, and I never got tired of answering.  I might have told him how I won the game for our team when I made the game-ending catch of a long fly-ball in centrefield.

“Jus’ like Willie Mays!” I’d say, omitting the fact that I had actually stumbled and fallen, slid to an ignominious stop, only to have the ball land on my stomach, where I frantically clutched it.

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“Mays is one of the greats,” he’d say.  “You caught it over your shoulder, like he did?  Wish I could have seen it.  Next time, though, try to keep the ball in front of you.  Those over-the-shoulder catches are pretty rare.”  And he’d flash me a knowing smile.

As a grandfather myself now, I know he knew I was padding the truth.  But I didn’t know back then.  I thought it was okay, because it brought us closer together.

He lived to a ripe old age, and in the last few years before he died, he was slowed considerably.  When I’d visit with him, it seemed our roles were reversed.  Now it was I asking the questions, and he searching for answers that would keep me there longer.  I always asked the old chestnut.

“So, what’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today, Grandpa?”

He no longer smoked his pipe, but he’d stroke his mouth as if still holding it, and I could almost hear the gears meshing inside his head.

“Nothing much today,” he’d say.  “But did I ever tell you about the time I saved your father from drowning?  Fell off the dock while we were fishing at the lodge up near Bala, no life-preserver.  I reached down, grabbed his collar, and hauled him straight out of the water.  Poor little guy cried like a baby.  That was pretty interesting, I’ll tell you.”

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I’d heard the story many times, of course, and my father had debunked it every time.  “The water was shallow,” he told me.  “I jumped in, and waded ashore.  And I did have a life-preserver on.  Dad loves to tell the story, though.”

Of course, I never let on that I didn’t believe what my grandpa was telling me.  I remember hearing how he met the King, back in 1939, when he and the Queen, on their tour of Canada, visited the hospital where my grandpa was recuperating from surgery.

“I had a picture of the two of us,” he’d say.  “Don’t know what ever happened to it.  Your grandma must’ve thrown it out.  But that was really interesting!”

Grandma would only smile when I asked about that picture.  “Grandpa was in the hospital in 1937,” was all she’d say.

I heard about the lawn-bowling championship he won, the skip of a Dominion championship team in 1909.  According to him, the mantel clock that still sits in my home was the prize awarded for the victory.

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“There’s no plaque on it, Grandpa,” I once told him.  “How come they didn’t put your name on it?”  The wistful look he gave me made me wish I hadn’t asked.

“Ah, they gave us all a letter,” he said.  “Signed by the prime minister, Mr. Borden.  That’s why your father’s middle name is Borden.  No idea where that letter is now.  But that’s pretty interesting, don’t you think?”

I nodded in agreement, and was circumspect enough not to mention that the prime minister in 1909 was Wilfrid Laurier.  My father was born in 1911, right after Robert Borden’s election.

By then, my grandpa’s eyes no longer sparkled as in days of yore.  But he’d still wink at me while telling his stories, and smile whimsically.  Kind of like my smile now, when I listen to my own grandchildren telling me about the momentous events in their lives.

And when they ask me about the interesting things in my day, I try not to lie to them.  Elaborating is not the same as lying.

“Nothing much today,” I tell them.  “But did I ever tell you about the time I saved my brother from the big kid across the road who was beating him up?  I ended up with a bloody nose and a black eye, but that kid never picked on my brother again.  That was pretty interesting.”

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“Really, Gramps?” they marvel.  Or pretend to.

Of course, I don’t tell them the real reason my brother was safe afterwards; the kid’s family moved away.

To this day, I have a warm feeling inside when I remember my grandpa, and those conversations we used to have.  And I love the exchanges now with my grandchildren, swapping tales about our lives.

Not lying, exactly.  Storytelling.

Which is what I do.

Diddle

“I used to diddle myself,” he said, slurping a spoonful of soup.

“Uncle Fred!” I hissed, trying to shush him, afraid diners at other tables would overhear.  “You can’t say stuff like that out loud.”

“Why not?” he said.  “I did it all the time, sometimes in front of people.  They all knew right away it was me.”

“You didn’t!” I said, horrifying visions of men’s-room madness running rampant through my brain.

“Used a scribbler,” he said.  “And a pencil.  No mo-beel phones back then, no selfers.  People used to say I should’ve been a cartoonist.”

“A scribbler?” I said.  “And a pencil?  You mean you used to doodle yourself?”

That’s what I said,” he said, sipping more soup.  “Characterchers.”

“Uncle Fred, you mean caricatures,” I said, relief washing over me.

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He spoke like that all the time, so I should have been prepared.  Ask him what he had for breakfast, for instance, and he might reply, “Broached eggs, toast, and piecemeal bacon.”

When my siblings and I visited him on a Saturday, he would cook drilled cheese sandwiches for us at lunchtime.  For dinner we might have macaretti and meatballs.

He was a master, unknowingly, of the malapropism, the substitution of an incorrect word for one sounding similar—its origin from the French mal a propos, meaning not appropriate.  The English playwright, Richard Sheridan, named one of his characters Mrs. Malaprop, and imbued her speech with countless examples.

I’m not sure my uncle ever read Sheridan, but he would probably not have recognized the errors—illegible for eligible, reprehend for comprehend, malevolence for benevolence, and so many others.

Not that he was unintelligent.  It was always a pleasure to hear him hold forth on topics of interest, never ranting or railing, simply expressing well-reasoned opinions.  He loved classical music, as do I, especially the nine tympanies of Beethoven.  He was a great baseball lover, a fan initially of the New York Yankers, and then latterly of the Toronto Blue Jades.  And he was a political junkie, always eager to discuss the follies of our elected reprehensibles.

A lifelong Tory, my uncle fondly referred to two of his favourite prime ministers as Chiefenbaker and Moroney, and praised their performance in the federal parlourment.  He called the bicameral bodies the Synod and House of Commoners (although that last one might have been intentional).

Talking with and listening to him was ever an enjoyable experience, and unintentionally hilarious.  “Those are two beautiful, wee girls,” he told me one time, referring to my daughters.  “I hope they’ll grow up depreciating the simple things in life.  Like their mother.”  Even my wife laughed at that attempt at a compliment.

“Invest your money wisely,” he would admonish me on occasion.  “Plan for your future, which is all ahead of you.  Frugality and persimmony are virtues.”

He had a host of other gems, too, all of which made sense once the chuckling stopped.

“Fresh fruit and veggies will keep you regular.  You’ll never be dissipated.”

“Be respectful and polite with people you meet.  Most of ‘em are well-indentured.

“Don’t be boastful.  Self-defecation is a good thing.”

“Get some exercise every day.  Don’t let yourself become sedimentary.”

Aunt Helen was used to it, of course, rarely raising an eyebrow.  I suspect she was never quite sure if he was naturally inclined to err, or slyly having everyone on.  But either way, she wasn’t above giving it right back to him every now and then.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked one night.

“Steak and kiddley pie,” she said, deadpan.

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“You mean kidney pie, Helen,” he corrected.

And without so much as a pause, she replied, “I said kiddley, diddle I?”

I miss them both.

 

Not a Joiner

The American humorist and actor, Groucho Marx, once declaimed, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

I don’t feel quite as strongly as he did about the issue, but still, I am not a joiner.

Not that I have dozens of invitations arriving weekly from various clubs or organizations, mind you.  In truth, almost all the offers I receive come from parties wanting my money.  There are blandishments from book clubs, reward-card companies, seniors’ affinity groups, travel clubs, and more, all promising the time of my life if I respond to their enticements.

I invariably decline.

I suppose it wasn’t always this way.  I do remember, in my pre-teen days, being a Wolf Cub, part of the Boy Scout movement.  And I still remember the motto we memorized, taken from The Law for the Wolves, a poem by Rudyard Kipling—the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

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The problem, as I recall, was that I never saw my pack-mates from one weekly meeting to the next, they being from different schools than I.  So I never felt particularly strong, and my ties to the pack were, at best, tenuous.

In my teens—indeed into my mid-fifties—I belonged to several different hockey and ball teams, and I faithfully practiced and played to the best of my abilities.  But these were never local, neighbourhood teams, so I rarely saw my teammates away from the arena or diamond.  I did enjoy the feeling of belonging, and missed it when I gave it all up, but that sense of loss has not prompted me to seek out similar experiences.

During my career, I was a nominal member of professional organizations and federations, but not in any active way.  I attended business meetings as expected, but usually eschewed the social gatherings that followed them.  Consequently, I was largely unknown by most other members.  In fact, when a coveted promotion that came my way was publicly announced, the most commonly-heard reaction from my provincial colleagues was a sincere, “Who?

Throughout these years, it might be said I embodied the timeworn declaration, “He’s not exactly a household name…even in his own household!”

Fortunately for me, the last part of that statement was untrue.  My wife and daughters always welcomed me into the most exclusive club of all, our family.

Now, in my retirement years, my most enjoyable pursuits are solitary by choice:  reading and writing.  I belong to no book clubs, no writers’ workshops, no arts organizations.  It could be assumed, therefore, that I am somewhat isolated and lonely, a curmudgeonly hermit, but such is not the case.  I regularly participate in a variety of group activities with friends and neighbours—golf, snooker, bridge, cycling, dinners, weekend escapes, wintertime travels—all of which come with no strings attached.  There’s no club to join.  People seem happy to see me when I’m there, and unperturbed when I’m absent.

I occasionally wonder if this proclivity for solitude defines me as selfish—uncommitted, unconcerned with the needs of others, aloof and cold.  But honestly, I don’t think so.  In my interactions with others, I try to exemplify the GAGA principle:  go along or go away.  And I certainly harbour no ill-will for those who do enjoy being members of a club or association, part of an inner-circle, safely ensconced in a cocoon of camaraderie.

But I’ve always appreciated the sentiment of the German theologian, Paul Tillich, who wrote:  Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.

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I am, happily for me, not a joiner.

Playing Catch

It’s been a long time since I’ve thrown a baseball around.  I used to do it all the time as a child, playing catch with anyone who would consent to chase after my wild throws.  Even as a younger man—into my mid-forties, actually—I tossed the ball back and forth with a myriad of teammates, all of us chasing visions of grace and glory.

My father was one of my earliest playmates, out on the back lawn.  Struggling to balance my oversized glove on my hand, I marvelled that he could catch the ball barehanded.  Whenever I tried that, it hurt my hands.  So instead, I’d make a stab at each toss with my glove, only to have the ball more often than not bounce off and hit me in the forehead.  That hurt, too, but I was determined to at least look like a ballplayer.

We spent a lot of hours playing catch, my dad and I, but never too long at any one time.  When he wanted to quit, he’d start throwing harder and harder until I suggested we take a rest.  After all, I only had one forehead.  My early school pictures show me with a round, red mark above my eyebrows.

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My neighbourhood pals were faithful playmates, too.  Two of us could while away a whole afternoon, just throwing and catching, often fantasizing that we were making remarkable plays on some distant major-league outfield.  If there were three or four of us, we’d play “running bases”, where the runners would attempt to steal from one base to the other without being tagged out.  It was not allowed to have two runners on one base, so when one guy took off, the other had to hotfoot it in the other direction.  Once in a while, there’d be a tremendous collision in the middle of the base-path.

If five or more of us were gathered, a favourite game was “500”, usually in a park or schoolyard.  One player would toss the ball in the air and strike it with his bat, while the rest of us would mill around in the outfield trying to catch it.  Fifty points were awarded for successfully fielding a grounder, seventy-five points for a one-hopper, and one hundred for catching a line-drive or fly ball.  The first guy to reach five hundred points would take over at bat.  The batter who didn’t want to yield his spot too quickly always tried to hit a lot of grounders.

Collisions in the outfield were a hazard, particularly on long flies.  For self-preservation we took to calling for the ball, as in “I’ve got it!  It’s mine!”  Anyone who called off the other players, but then missed the catch, lost the equivalent points.  I think that’s where I first learned the concept of negative numbers.

Younger kids could play this game with us, but only if we were shorthanded.  Generally, they just weren’t good enough.  I remember to this day the first time my younger brother played.  I patiently explained (as patiently as an older brother can) that he’d have to call for the ball so as to avoid potential injury.  When the first fly ball came his way, looming ever larger as it dropped out of the sky toward him, he settled under it, planted his feet…and then, to my horror, turned away from it.

“Yours!” he shouted.  The ball bounced to a stop on the grass.  And my brother decided he didn’t want to play anymore.

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Another game we played a lot was “Work-ups”.  When we got to school in the morning, we’d race for the ball diamond, grabbing our positions in the sequence we arrived.  The pecking-order ran from batter, four of them, all the way down to last-outfielder.  There could be as many as seven of those.  As each batter made an out, he’d trot to the outfield while everyone else moved up one position.  Third base was the first infield slot, followed by shortstop, second base, first base, pitcher, and catcher.  It often took a long time to become one of the batters.

 When the bell sounded to start classes, someone would instantly yell, “Same positions at recess!”  This was usually one of the guys who had worked his way into the infield, and didn’t want to risk losing his spot if he was late getting back to the diamond.

Although I was far from being a gifted athlete, I was good enough to play with guys a year or two older.  Guys who were bigger and faster.  Guys who got to the diamond to stake their positions before I did.  Consequently, I spent a lot of time patrolling the outfield in these schoolyard games, only rarely making it to the infield, and almost never to the batter’s box.

But I think that paid off for me in the long run.  As many of us began playing for real teams, both hardball and fastball—all the way to middle-age for many of us—I became a pretty good centre-fielder.  I was fast and could track a ball right off the bat.  I was never much of a hitter, though, so it was my defensive prowess that kept me in the line-up.  Secretly, I would have preferred to play second-base, mainly because I didn’t have a strong throwing arm.  If a fly ball got past me, the batter could scamper a good way around the bases before I got the ball back to the infield.

Nobody ever said about me, “Watch this kid’s arm!  He’s got a gun out there!”  Instead, I was known as a ball-hawking centerfielder with a second baseman’s arm.  I got fairly good at three-bouncing the ball to my cut-off man.  On one ignominious occasion, my throw actually rolled to a stop on the grass before it reached my guy.

But as I said earlier, it’s been a long time since I threw a baseball anywhere.  The teammates I once played with are boys no more.  My wife, who used to play shortstop for a women’s team, is into golf now.  The broken nose she suffered on a bad bounce those many years ago helped convince her to take up another sport.  My two daughters are grown and gone.  Four of my grandchildren are old enough to play with me, but their game is soccer.  They can do more with a ball using their feet than I can with my hands.

I miss it, though.  There’s something about the feel of a baseball, the smell of the leather glove, the satisfying thok! as the ball smacks into the webbed pocket.  It evokes wonderful memories of long-ago days.  Perhaps it’s just an older man’s yearning for his youth, but it’s real, nonetheless.  Watching baseball on television is no substitute; it’s the playing of the game that counts.

Recently I decided to get out there, even if by myself, and re-live the experiences I treasure.  Alone on the grass, I tossed the ball high in the air, over and over again.  Joyously at first, I settled under each ball as it came back down, deciding whether to try the basket-catch made famous by Willie Mays, an over-the-shoulder catch such as I used to make routinely, or even a behind-the-back catch.

But I had to quit when my forehead got too sore.