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15 July 2012 @ 09:53 pm
The Real LJ Idol: "Tall Tales"  
Tall Tales
real lj idol | week 34, prompt 1 |833 words
Barefoot, uphill, both ways.

x-x-x-x-x

When I was little, I believed all my father's stories were true.

Not the ones where he was obviously joking, the ones that began "When I was a little girl…" just for the sake of hearing his children shriek, "Daddy, you were never a girl!"

No, it was the outlandish histories, instead. These might have once contained some seed of truth, but it got lost somewhere in the cycle of iterative embellishment. These were the Shoshone blood-brother stories, the faceoff with the Junior Golden Gloves Champion, the turning-point weekend-in-the-Psych-Ward adventure. The lesser recountings of Halloween pranks or episodes of By-God-I-Was-Smart were probably closer to the truth, and no one doubts his secretly sweating out a rattlesnake bite suffered in the middle of a family camping trip in Utah (at the motel afterwards, everyone saw the proof).

My father made sure that all five of his children knew the importance of always telling the truth. That was why it took me so long to suspect that any stories that sounded made-up probably were.

I don't know how my mother feels about all this. The more outrageous stories date from the years before he met her, and I don't know if she once heard simpler versions of them that would contradict their later incarnations. If she had, I doubt she'd tell us. She's been enabling his ego past intervention and adversity for decades now. I'm sure there's a formula involving octogenerians and victimless lies that kicks in for her every time the issue comes up.

A tendency to inflate the truth usually comes from feeling insecure. I'm not sure why my father feels his actual accomplishments aren't good enough, unless it's that my mother did all those same things while also battling outrageous sexism and having to work as a crop-picker and carhop to put herself through college and medical school. Or perhaps it's that he was the youngest of ten children and thought all his siblings knew and did everything so much better—especially his next-oldest-brother, the college football star killed in the second World War, who was forever exempt from being out-triumphed.

Did the lies begin early or late? What set off the shift from anecdotes to outright fabrication?

My father's first wife's family was newly American, a transplanted group of old-world Italians with more history in their family name than anything new-country pioneers could hope to accomplish. My mother was his second wife, and her family's legacy was not noble, but it outstripped most for sheer fortitude and pride. Her father left London at age thirteen and came to America as an indentured servant, working until he'd bought passage for himself, his mother, and two sisters (his own father having abandoned the family when the oldest was five). He married and had his own children, working as a carpenter and just barely bringing his family through the Depression. He had only an eighth-grade education, but he was inured to hardship. He and his wife managed to rear a minister, a doctor, and a schoolteacher with no help from anyone but themselves.

Was it my mother's father who was so intimidating? Even if there was honesty in my father's stories of walking to school in snow so high you could unscrew the light bulbs from the street lights (assuming street lights even had screw-in bulbs in the '30s?), they paled in comparison to walking seventy miles to Enterprise from an Eastern Oregon homestead, just for the purpose of getting basic supplies.

My father is in his mid-eighties now, and I know we probably have less than ten years together at best. It pains me that his need to entertain or impress stands in the way of really letting us know large parts of who he is. The events that propelled him into psychiatry as a medical specialty, for instance—did any of those happen (and which ones were they?), or is it possible even he can't remember anymore?

The truth is this: he was the youngest of ten children, born to a Utah farmer and his wife, and his mother died when he was eleven. He joined the Navy during WWII at age 17, skipping his final year of high school and then later going to college on the G.I. Bill. His naval supply ship saw unexpected combat, and he got hit in the head with an oxygen tank and was given a medical discharge. He married his first wife in college, and went on to medical school afterward. He became a psychiatrist, had three children, and got divorced, and then married again. Two more children followed. In the years after that, he was well-respected and professionally acclaimed, and all of his children are now grown with families of their own. At eight-six, he's still healthy and has led a good and interesting life and met a lot of great people.

So now, based on those simple facts alone, I still don't understand his thinking: how is all of that not already enough?




Voting details are here. All voting is by blocks (some possibly members-only) but the groups are small, so not too many stories to read for any one group!

 
 
 
the key of the day and the lock of the nightlocknkey on July 16th, 2012 05:21 am (UTC)
This is wonderful, bb! So simple and heartfelt, it shines with feeling. I can also identify, as I don't feel I really knew my father becasue of some of the same tendencies. <3
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 16th, 2012 06:31 am (UTC)
Thank you!

It's interesting to know that you've been through something like this yourself, and know the frustrations of it all.

I understand having parts of the past you'd want to avoid talking about, though firmness and evasion work perfectly well there. But why invent or reinvent the stories you want to tell? At some point, they become ridiculous, and all your family really wants is to know what actually happened. The more you try to impress, the more lies you call upon, and nobody is impressed when the house of cards collapses.

I don't get it. Is it something men do more often than women?

One of the most outlandish stories was deceptively simple: "I remember being in my crib when I was two." That one came out of nowhere when he was 78, and I tell you, if you ever remember something that early in life, it won't suddenly arrive in your late 70s. Wow.
the key of the day and the lock of the nightlocknkey on July 16th, 2012 08:42 am (UTC)
I wonder if men are more prone to it because they aren't really allowed to be vulnerable - especially men of our father's generation. They had to be the strong, upstanding protectors. My dad tended to exaggerate and I guess we all just tuned him out when he repeated the story for the hundredth time with more embellishments. I wonder if it's a grown up version of boasting on the playground?

For my Dad I know some of it came from a messed up past. He was an alcoholic and was in the foster system by the time he was five. None of his siblings (only three of nine were known to my dad) want to talk about it. The few details I've retrieved are pretty horrific, so i get it, but in so many ways it made me feel like I never got to know the real man beneath all the defense mechanisms. It wasn't until I visited with my son and saw them interacting that I felt like I got to see some of that. With an infant - someone who couldn't hurt him - he could be himself.

The thing you mentioned about your mom also resonated. I think my dad never really felt like he was worthy of her.

I don't think there any easy answers, but it's sad to feel that distance. My dad is gone now, but keep working on yours. Maybe you can approach it gently. I've too many regrets for not pursuing things with people who are gone now. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 16th, 2012 06:36 pm (UTC)
I wonder if it's a grown up version of boasting on the playground?
That's a good question, and that's also something boys tend to do more than girls. Or did. Definitely true for my Dad's generation.

but in so many ways it made me feel like I never got to know the real man beneath all the defense mechanisms.
Wow. This really made me think, because defense machanisms develop awfully early, and they can become almost a survival trait-- especially in a case like your Dad's. My dad is himself an alcoholic (and does not admit to it), but other than losing his mother (a big deal, certainly) he didn't suffer much. It's not as if he's creating a wall against a lot of terrible memories, as your father probably did.

The thing you mentioned about your mom also resonated. I think my dad never really felt like he was worthy of her.
Sadder still, I think neither of my parents felt worthy of the other. My mother felt unloveable and unsuitable for marriage to anyone (being such an early feminist was half of that), and my father may feel unworthy of her (years of alternately praising and belittling her sure speak to that).

Maybe you can approach it gently.
I'll sure give it a try. My father is very defensive about so many things, and even having told conflicting stories about certain events, the idea that one or more is not the absolute truth? Scandalous!

Thanks for reading and offering such thoughtful comments, Dee!
Lose 10 Pounds of Ugly Fat...  Cut Off Your Head.n3m3sis42 on July 16th, 2012 12:16 pm (UTC)
Did you ever see the movie Big Fish? This sort of reminded me of that. I fully understand the feeling of one's own truth somehow feeling lacking. I just don't get the additional step of lying about it. :/
A Sentient Being: Fairyalien_infinity on July 16th, 2012 01:26 pm (UTC)
I fully understand the feeling of one's own truth somehow feeling lacking. I just don't get the additional step of lying about it. :/

I think this is how I feel. My own truth feels rather inadequate to me, but I'm not going to make up stories to tell people in order to feel better about myself.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 16th, 2012 06:41 pm (UTC)
My own truth feels rather inadequate to me, but I'm not going to make up stories to tell people in order to feel better about myself.
Agreed! Even when others might not think so, most people usually find themselves inadequate. We used to value this quality-- it was called "being humble"-- though it can be taken too far and go all the way over to devaluing oneself.

But making up stories to impress people? It's desperate and it's wrong, and how likely is it that things will turn out well in the long run? :0
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 16th, 2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
I did see it-- I was fascinating!

I fully understand the feeling of one's own truth somehow feeling lacking. I just don't get the additional step of lying about it. :/

That's the part that puzzles me. I understand that feeling-- I think most of us, except for raving egomaniacs, probably feel that way ourselves. But why lie about those things instead of avoid talking about them? Especially if you're going to put Truth on the Ultimate Altar and then violate its sanctity yourself? The combination of those two things is even weirder.
Lose 10 Pounds of Ugly Fat...  Cut Off Your Head.n3m3sis42 on July 16th, 2012 06:43 pm (UTC)
I bawled like a baby at the end of that movie. Loved it.

That is a really strange combination. Oddly enough, my mom was like that about truth too when I was growing up. She doesn't make up stories like your dad does, but I notice when we get into arguments/disagreements (which is pretty often), that her version of the truth seems to be kind of... fluid. Perceptual differences? Maybe. But it also seems odd for someone who has always been such a champion of Truth. Oh well.
cindytsuki_no_bara on July 16th, 2012 06:02 pm (UTC)
this is fascinating - your folks and their folks went thru some interesting stuff! - and kind of sad, that your dad didn't think his life and accomplishments were worth telling the truth about.

(i don't think either of my parents exaggerate stories about themselves, but if you ask about their parents' or grandparents' generation, i'm sure there's a lot of, er, fabrication in there, altho partly because no one knows what the true facts are.)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 16th, 2012 06:51 pm (UTC)
your folks and their folks went thru some interesting stuff!
I still have copies of replicated memoirs that my grandfather wrote-- covering his homestead days (I haven't read those) and his WWI days (I've read a bit of those).

At some point, I might still make a whole story about his early childhood and how people would call Child Welfare these days on his living situation... but not see that it was still better than the alternative, including an orphanage. Public services were lousy then, so his mother did what she had to. They're better now, but not so much so that a lot of kids won't do anything to avoid group homes or foster care.

but if you ask about their parents' or grandparents' generation, i'm sure there's a lot of, er, fabrication in there, altho partly because no one knows what the true facts are.
There's that problem too, though it's better to subtract rather than add then, in my book!

My F-I-L's mother used to tell all kinds of stories about his father that did not sound remotely true. One of them, about "Playing chess with the last Czar," could only be verified as far as "Was in Russia, proximate to the palace, in the claimed timeframe." That was farther along the truth spectrum than everyone expected, but that last part? So unlikely. :0
the_day_setupthe_day_setup on July 17th, 2012 05:30 pm (UTC)
I vote for the "youngest of ten siblings" theory. Growing up in that situation, I would think you'd do anything possible to make yourself stand out or be more memorable to folks who come your way.

I'm an oldest child, so is my dad. My younger brother developed some attention-garnering complexes as a result of being my younger sibling (at some point, I guess it looked like *I* was the one with the actual future, but it sure worked out for him!). My dad's most chronologically-distant siblings definitely have some similar issues with backstory alteration, which haven't always been victimless crimes in their cases.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 17th, 2012 10:41 pm (UTC)
Growing up in that situation, I would think you'd do anything possible to make yourself stand out or be more memorable to folks who come your way.
I can see that, especially with your other comments.

I'm my mother's youngest, and one of my Dad's middle kids, but I have a lot of Oldest Child behavior. So the Youngest Child tends to be foreign to me (and often frustrating! What is with the pestering!!!).

My dad's most chronologically-distant siblings definitely have some similar issues with backstory alteration
"Backstory alteration"-- that's it exactly! I like this term. It sounds better than "chronically lying," which seems both true and also harsh. :0
Myrnamyrna_bird on July 17th, 2012 10:13 pm (UTC)
I like that you sifted through the embellished stories and stated the facts in the last paragraph. It sounds like he has had a pretty successful life in every way yet still feels lacking somehow. I could relate to what you said about your mother enabling his ego. After all, we all know that behind every successful man, you'll find a good woman or something like that. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 17th, 2012 10:47 pm (UTC)
It sounds like he has had a pretty successful life in every way yet still feels lacking somehow.

That's how it feels to me, too. That is a really impressive record, and it's been a good life and he's enjoyed it a lot. How is it lacking? Most of us aren't going to become president, or Harry Blackman, or Jonas Salk, or anything like that. We're also not rolling in the gutter. But that list is more impressive than a lot of people's lists, I'm sure.

I could relate to what you said about your mother enabling his ego.
That part definitely gets frustrating, because she has also enabled his controlling nature, his drinking, and pretty much all his flaws (which I guess is what 'enabling' means!) Thanks to that, most of those behaviors have gotten some degree worse. It 'rocks the boat' less (that seems to be her goal), but the long-term result is much worse. :0

Thanks for reading and commenting!
whipchickwhipchick on July 19th, 2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
"I'm sure there's a formula involving octogenerians and victimless lies that kicks in for her every time the issue comes up."

Great phrase :)

It's hard, I think, to allow the people closest to see the real self, worrying that it's not enough. I like how this is funny and touching at the same time.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 20th, 2012 02:47 am (UTC)
I'm glad the touching parts came through, as much as the humor.

It's hard to know what's going through my father's mind on this topic. On the one hand, he was very much ahead of his time on women's choices and roles in society. On the other hand, he's also 86 and parts of him (especially in the way he thinks about himself) are surely products of his generation. It's figuring out where one ends and the other begins that's the problem there.

Honesty is all-important... except when it comes to himself? I chafe at that idea.
java_fiendjava_fiend on July 20th, 2012 12:49 am (UTC)
You really have a great way of turning phrases and also for telling simple truths. It really is unfortunate that the need to impress keeps you from knowing parts of him. I really don't know why what he had was not enough.

It must have been difficult for you to write but I really enjoyed this piece a lot and your writing really is pretty fantastic. Great job.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 20th, 2012 02:51 am (UTC)
These are such nice things to read-- especially given that this story nearly killed me ded in the polls. It's hard to know which nonfiction entries will resonate with readers and which ones won't.

But I'm sure glad this one spoke to you. I hope that I remember the lesson here myself, which is that very few of us have extraordinary lives, but most of us do or can have pretty great lives. The trick is not to think the absence of the first negates the second.

Thanks for reading and commenting, as always!