the oral tradition

sunsetMom is the musical one. She is colors and love and sweetness and children. Dad is the serious one. He is authority and logic and responsibility and adults. They both worry, in their own way. Dad’s are generally considered to be more founded, even if they often seem to lack emotional content. For a long time, I have been Daddy’s girl. Even before Mom was pregnant with me, he chose my name, and then when I was born, it was on his birthday. So we are bound together in more than just the usual way. Growing up, I often considered myself to be the closest-thing-he-has-to-a-son. though my burden has been somewhat reduced since my sisters started getting married to burly men who better fill the role.

Dad and I often would go on long rough bike rides. I, strong, would pass him on the uphill, but he, braver, would pass me on the way down. We watched sports together. He helped me with my physics homework. When I went to college, I studied Mechanical Engineering, just like he had. It felt like the right thing to do, the respectable and logical thing.

For 4 ½ years and beyond, I utterly denied the other part of me that Mom represented.

Recently there has been a creative renaissance in my life. I write, I sing, I make friendship bracelets, and I play piano. I have started identifying the great power of stories in my life. It takes humility to expose this side to my Mom, because it’s part of a world that I undermined for so long. But it feels so good to air it out that I just do. And that’s when I started becoming aware of the role of language in our family life.


Sometimes it seems like Mom doesn’t stop singing. She, like me, is a very verbal person, and when words alone won’t do, she sets them to tune. With 5 kids in the family, little bodies were a constant presence in this family for over a decade, but there was a lull as new babies finally stopped coming and the old babies carried on growing. A new generation of nieces have ushered in another round of infant culture in the house- now it is socially appropriate to sing kids’ songs again. And we do. Such a vast field of memories to be mined! Often a song will strike a particular chord in my mind and unearth an entire vein of other words, other choruses, and other songs from Other times: Ugly Bug Ball, Silvery Moon, Mares Eat Oats, Skip to my Lou, Fried Ham. They tumble out in sweet rhythmic time.

This is a rich and ancient oral tradition that no one bothers documenting because most people in the business of recording music don’t also happen to be infants or their mothers. Often the children themselves hardly recall them because the songs diminished as their ability to hold memories increased. Older sisters have a rare insight, they bridge the gap. Now that I’m remembering the tunes of my early childhood, I want to know what gems all the other families contain. I want to know what the Gaellic and the Phillipino and the Tanzanain mothers are crooning to their babies as they bounce on shoulders and in laps. I want to hear what tune the tender grandmothers set to their whispers as they stand in the doorway over the crib. I even want to know what the eager camp counselor and the bored au pair come up with as they engage in the timeless ritual of If I Make More Noise Will You Just Stop Crying?

It’s very clear to me that Mom, with her songs and her words, carries the thread of the oral tradition in our family. So it was strange to walk into the room and hear Dad telling one of my stories. Telling them as though they were lore, as though they person they happened to didn’t also happen to be in the room and in a far better position to supply the original version. He had the presence of mind to say “well, Michele could probably tell it better” before he carried on. I was touched by the power of the story. My experiences became my stories became his stories became incorporated into someone else’s worldview. He half-butchered the story and I avoided the temptation to adjust. Success in storytelling is not measured chiefly in accuracy but in enthusiasm.


Without trying, we invented our own themes in a new oral tradition. Some topics, like threads in a loom would duck down out of sight and pop up again farther down, connecting the blurry days together. They are the quibbling disagreements that are a sport to engage in, no one is offended and everyone is entertained. On this trip, we were wrapped up in a long-term debate over the comparative merits of Cocoa Pebbles and Cocoa Krispies. We admit it is trivial but, then again, we also happened to have 3 versions of Coke in the fridge (“Classic,” Diet, Diet Caffeine Free) in various denominations of bottles and cans, so it’s not really all that surprising.

The sisters prefer the Pebbles, Dad the Krispies. It’s hard to keep this straight because the sisters could often be seen eating the Krispies. From what I can gather, it is partially for research “they just taste more fake to me”- partially to gain empathy-“I can understand why people would like them, they’re just not better”- but mostly it is that age-old ritual of saving the best for last.

If Dad saw this he would surely lobby for the preservation of his preferred chocolaty breakfast cereal, but he is engaged in another ritual of the oral tradition. Just outside Mom, Dad and their college buddies are gazing at what is a truly excellent view of Lake Michigan. They take turns adding kindling to the ever-greedy fire of relative geocentrism- the belief that what is good in our homeland is in fact better than what is good in others’.

This conversation has occurred, is occurring, will occur with minor variations all across this state. First, protectionism: “Most people would never believe that we have this here in Michigan.” Then, admission of one’s own prejudice: “It’s surprisingly beautiful.” Lastly, the punchline: “It looks like an ocean- but no salt!”

Having traveled extensively, I have a hard time chirping in on such conversations. But then again, my words have greater weight since they can lean against the foundation of actual comparison. Part of me wants to smirk at their narrow world view- it is certainly beautiful here but not necessarily better than so many other places. Instead, they win me over because I am so taken by their sincere appreciation of what they have. That sort of satisfaction with home is severely dissipated in red-eye flights and long queues at Border Security. We who grew up in a world made unprecedentedly accessible for travel have a nagging worry that where we come from is lame compared to where other people come from. I was to participate, I want to be part of the tradition, I want to practice the art of appreciation, so I chime in: “I’ve never seen a prettier sunset.”

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