Foreword by Cynthia Mazzant
Telling Stories: a place to talk, a place to connect, a process of cultural transformation, a form of therapy, a means to bring a community together. The power of the narrative offers hope, healing and transformation. Many have argued that is through storytelling that we best understand ourselves.
So we’re starting two new columns as we bring the stories to you. And poetry. And drama (and not just from our staff meetings). Should you wish to become one of our storytellers or featured artists, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Telling stories is a way to share our experiences, connect, identify and learn from one another,” said Pam Monk of Pamelapolis Productions. “Plus it’s fun. Hence Muriel’s Repair. You are welcome to join us, on the last Wednesday of each month, 7 p.m. at Websters.”
Our first story comes from the creator of Muriel’s Repair, Pamela Monk. Pamela Monk is a teacher, writer and storyteller, and a work in progress.
Our second story comes from Tommy Gongol, a freshman at Penn State.
Just Stories: Muriel’s Repair
My vaccination via the Sanicola Boys
by Pamela Monk
I wonder if the in house teasing I received as a child didn’t serve as a vaccine against bullying out there in the real world. I came in for a lot of teasing in my family. I was a nerdy bookworm (big surprise) I loved school and I believed everything that I was told, even contradictory things.
I had three cousins who did most of the inoculating—Charlie, Johnny and Robert. These days, Charlie is 80, Johnny is 73 and Robert, is somewhere north of 65, gray haired, hefty—old men. But in my mind’s eye, they are in their twenties—big strong and confident of their places in the family—even though they weren’t, not really. They are my first cousins, brothers, the sons of my Aunt Lily, my mother’s oldest sister. We saw them a lot because my mother and her sister were close.
Lily was the matriarch, circumstances forced her to be the breadwinner in a patriarchy. Her father, my grandfather was long dead, her mother confined to Italian speaking family. My uncle Jack, her husband, had a stroke when he was in his late thirties that left him paralyzed and bed ridden. I have no memory of him healthy. Lily took care of him, with help from her mother and Charlie’s wife—his bed was in the living room of their home, where most people would have their sofa. I thought nothing of it.
That was just how it was.
Charlie was a photoengraver, a profession that has eventually disappeared, Johnny was a transit cop who retired early on disability, and Robert played basketball in high school and some in college before he dropped out to enlist in the Air Force during the Viet Nam War. He eventually finished school and became an FBI agent.
To them, I was like an easily swatted fly, with no standing whatsoever and very little clout in the family dynamic, armed only with an unshakeable, but undocumented, sense of my own value. To the Sanicola boys, when they thought to pay any attention to me at all, I was a patsy.
A few incidents are indelible. There may have been others, but these are the ones I, in my stubborn Sicilian way, have never forgotten, and last I checked, never forgiven either.
Charlie liked to joke. One day, a large cake is presented at the dinner table, in the shape of what is referred to as a bombe. I recall it being covered with sprinkles, or coconut flakes. Smell it, says Charlie, get closer, smell it. This I do. And just as I am close enough to take a sniff, he pushes my face full into it. And everybody laughs.
Another time, I was playing rummy with one of them, probably Robert, Charlie and Johnny stood behind me, and made up a running story to let him know what cards I had. Which went on until I figured it out and stopped playing, much to their amusement.
Robert was old enough to babysit me. It was never pleasant. I remember trying to escape once my parents left me in his clutches.
“Let me teach you this new judo move I learned,” he’d say, as he would proceed to throw me around. It was never enough to cause damage, only to make the point that there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. And I don’t know how many times it took me to say NO to a game of 52 pick up.
This wasn’t malicious, I understood it then, and I understand that now. It was a matter of establishing hierarchy, in an traditional extended family, people have their places and need to know what they are.
So no one really protested their treatment of me…it was mild, just swatting me down. I represented a symbolic danger – part of the first generation to be truly American, I didn’t have a single conversation with my grandmother, who didn’t speak English. I had school, which in the 60s presented an escape from the feudal, patriarchy into which I was born.
But things heated up when I went to college… I was at Michigan State in the 1969 school year. The students were killed at Kent State that spring. I wasn’t very political, but it was hard not to be in those days.
I came home to my blue-collar Republican family, the only person anyone knew who was out among the commie pinko hippies – I became a focus of their frustration. Robert who was in the Air Force at the time, suggested at one discussion that we ought to nuke the North Vietnamese. I responded that I didn’t think it was a great idea. Upon which he told me I ought to go back to Russia if I loved it so much.
This conversation got as far as the wider intergenerational conversation did… nowhere useful.
The last interaction of my childhood happened later on that summer. We were sitting around the picnic table, and by we, I mean my parents, my sister, my aunt, my cousins, their wives and girlfriends, and children, my grandmother.
Robert must have been saying something that irked me. I have absolutely no recollection of what it was. But whatever it was, I had reached a tipping point. Robert, said I, you are such a…prick.
The word escaped before I could stop it. No calling it back. The conversation stopped. Forks suspended in mid air, all eyes were on me. It couldn’t have been seconds, but I felt as though I had stopped time and stepped through a wormhole into a dimension where I wielded words as weapons, and that behind me the portal back was irrevocably shut.
Well, well, well, says Robert, as whoosh of the airlock closing behind me fades… so that’s what my little cousin is learning in college.
But he or any of his brothers ever wrangled with me again.
Just Stories: A Lion’s Life
Leaving The Nest
by Tommy Gongol
Tick-Tock. My subconscious was kicking my ass… again. I didn’t have a watch, or a clock with any moving parts that would cause a ticking noise, and yet there it was. A warning of when they would leave and I would be on my own.
“You’ll be fine,” she whispered, noticing how my face was pressed up against the glass and how my body tensed, breaking any shroud of the calm characteristic optimism my classmates had awarded me on some months before.
“I know.” I replied, and my lips silently echoed the phrase two or three more times—apparently I didn’t know. Why are they doing this to me? I thought. Although of course I knew no one was doing anything to me. I was going to college. People go to college. My mind couldn’t help but wander like a lost child, imagining every worst-case scenario and creating even worse analogous situations. On that car ride, I came to class in my underwear, was thrown into the deep end of the world’s largest and deepest pool and went to space forgetting an oxygen tank. My mind is not my best friend. I was never a summer camp kid. There were no extended trips to Maine to go water skiing or orienting. I longed for home before I ever left.
We got out of the car and already the water bottles were sweating like an Olympic marathon runner. My shirt clung to me, the hydrogen bonds making the water on my shirt stick to the water on my skin. I imagined it in a fashion much like how I wanted to cling to my parents’ legs.
“The elevator is broken on move-in day?” my dad asked nobody. Nothing like a nine-flight walk to get the blood pumping.
“You’re gonna like the Towers,” he said. He was a junior. He had a name. He carried three boxes up nine flights of steps for us. And as soon he left these were the only details I could remember. The tick tock was deafening.
“If we finish unpacking him early then maybe we don’t have to stay in the hotel tonight.”
Traitor. For some reason my sister, so nice in the car, wanted to abandon me in my time of need. She would pay. Later. Thinking of when the lady downtown commented on how nice it was that my younger sister was moving me in brought a sinister grin.
She’s twenty-two, and she HATES when people think I’m older. However, plotting my sweet revenge would have to wait, as I was preoccupied dwelling over the fact that I was not ready for college.
Tick tock. The laptop cord wasn’t long enough to reach up to my bed. Why does the world hate me?
“Yeah maybe.” my mom replied. Why was the sun so high? Why did my clothes seem so big? My feet were swimming in my shoes that suddenly were much too large for my feet. Did everyone get taller? Why is everything greyscale? Wherearemyglasses everything’stooblurry.
Somehow the boxes had traitorously unpacked themselves. My textbooks placed themselves on my desk, and my bed had made itself. My move-in became some sick, nightmarish version of Beauty and the Beast, without all of the singing and dancing teacups and more of the, everything happening against my will aspect.
“I want a photo!” my mom said smiling excitedly. Her curls were erratically springing back and forth as she ran to frame the shot. She was supposed to be crying. Does she not love me?
“I want to see my old alma mater! I think we should stay in the hotel tonight and see the campus this afternoon.” For the first time I noticed how she was decked out in blue and white. Literally the best mom in the world.
Someone seemed to have switched my eyes back to auto focus. They anxiously gravitated back to the photo on my phone. I hoped that the drum line that was my heartbeat at that moment would mask the thunderstorm that was my inner thoughts. I was supposed to be confident. I wasn’t.
Tick Tock. I was sinking again. Every one seemed to have faith in my abilities to succeed except for me.
“I think I want to sleep in the hotel tonight,” I said, struggling to maintain my composure “We’re a day early and I’m running on like four hours of sleep, I just need one good night before I start.”
Tick Tock. Tick Tock. Tick Tock. Tick Tock. The small child that was the manifestation of my inner thoughts struggled with little T-rex arms to reach that damn clock on the top shelf.
Laying in bed, there were too many sheep to count. That damn Tick Tock was like a 21 gun salute. I’d like to say I convinced myself that night that I would be okay. Tick Tock. That I would step out of the car instantly make best friends. Tick Tock. That I dominated all of my schoolwork. Tick Tock. That I calmly drifted off to sleep. I would like to say that.
Instead, the running on four hours of sleep thing just caught up with me. Consciousness left me alone on that hotel bed. Tick…
I woke up the next morning feeling anxiously refreshed. It was oddly quiet as the sun slinked through the open crack where the shades just parted. Tock. I exploded, metaphorically of course. My inner psyche was like one of those annoying online rage comics.
I was tired of feeling anxious. I wanted to cut the cord, leave the nest and just get on with the inevitable. It hit me that I was tired of ramming my head into a wall of nerves. I wanted to stumble through, perhaps not strong but at least moving forward.
This is the point of the story where I should say I got out of the car on Bigler Road, waved goodbye to my parents and went to the dining hall with those best friends I mentioned before and everything worked itself out.
But that’s not quite how real life works. Real life is a jerk. Real life is the bully on the playground who wasn’t quite content pushing you down just once. But a few clubs, a few friends, a couple good grades, a couple bad ones (i.e. failed mid-term) later things did look up. It was like I was on a sailboat in the open ocean and the waters were calm. I may not know enough about sailing to, well, sail, but calm waters meant at least I wasn’t drowning.
I am happy to say though, that the little kid in my head took a sledgehammer to that damn clock with one hell of a crazed look in his eye.