More than two years since I posted here, but I ran across this essay I wrote and decided it might be of interest. I did bring a couple things up to date. And while you’re here, you could hop on over to the other weblogs. There’s a new one called Visual and Sweet Blue has been tweaked.
The Education of a Storyteller: Slanted and Abbreviated
revised October 2023
What you need to know about me first and foremost is that I grew up in a working class neighborhood on the northside of Chicago. My father, who was raised in Italy, was a restaurant cook. My mother was a waitress, and I spent a big hunk of my formative years skulking around the restaurant kitchen or sneaking behind the bar to steal maraschino cherries.
My father was one of ten kids, every one of them a storyteller of that particular school that values dramatic gestures and grandiose dialogue. These were not formally educated people; at sixteen they left school for factory or service jobs. They read very little, but they talked. Oh, how they could talk. There were two topics that never wore out: food, and family.
To give you a sense of the kind of storytelling that went on, this excerpt from my great uncle Luigi Alfonso’s history of the family, dictated in 1927 and translated from the Italian:
Carlo Antonio Lippi rendered himself notorious by killing the baron of Porcile, Antonio Cesare Ventimiglia. This was during the rule of Giuseppe Buonaparte over the kingdom of Naples (about 1807). As Carlo was about to deliver the fatal shot he shouted “Signore, Giuseppe Bonaparte sends you this!” Carlo was a hero of the people and escaped all punishment with their help.
Now, I have no idea how true that story is, but certainly the family believed it. That was the first lesson: good storytelling has precious little to do with facts.
My grandmother died six months before I was born, so I was named for her, and in the normally curious way of little girls, I wanted to know more about this grandmother. I started asking questions quite early on, and what I got out of that was an introduction to a wide variety of concepts in Italian storytelling. These were staples in the family storytelling toolbox: first person narration, unreliable narrator, and magical realism.
There are multiple creation myths as I like to think of them attached to my grandmother. The reason is simple: she seemed to spring out of nowhere. My grandfather had a village full of family in Italy; she had nobody. She was a blank slate, and her children were more than happy to slop on the paint, each in his or her own fashion. For every one of her ten kids, there were to least five versions of her life story and almost as many variants of her name. “Your grandmother’s name was Rose Rose, and you was named for her,” my aunt Kate told me.
My father and three of his sisters, ca 1929, when he had just come home from Italy.
Kate was a minority opinion on this one. Others told me their mother’s real name had been Rosina Russo, Rosie Ross, Rosa Rossini, Rosealie Rust. In fact, all these names and more variants are to be found on legal documents. Her marriage certificate, her baptismal certificate, the birth certificates of her children, everyone of them had a different name. Rose Rose gave birth to Uncle Joe; Rosina Rose gave birth to Aunt Fran, and so on. It was as if she wasn’t sure herself what her name was. I was in my fifties when I found reliable documentation: her name was Rosina Rusi. With the help of genealogists I have also found her parents – but not their dates or places of death.
So tell me about her, I’d say, and the stories would start. Please remember that most of what I was told was not factual. But that wasn’t the idea, anyway.
Uncle Fred said his father and mother came over from the Abbruzz’. Somebody else disagreed: They came from Naples. They came from Calabria. He was a silk worker. A tailor, a green grocer. She was orphaned when her parents died in a smallpox epidemic in Paterson New Jersey in 1889.
No, only her mother died and not of smallpox, in childbirth. Her father couldn’t cope so he gave the kids over to the Mother Cabrini Orphanage in Manhattan, and went off to Kansas. Or back to Italy. Or out to California. She had one sister, Aunt May. She had two sisters, the little one was just a baby and got adopted right away. There was a brother who went west with the orphan trains. There was just Rose and May, and nobody else. Aunt May wasn’t really her sister, just somebody she grew up with.
The best stories were about how grandpa Fred and grandma Rose met and got married. He got tired of cooking for himself, the most popular story goes, and he wanted a wife. A good Italian girl. So he went down to the Cabrini orphanage and stated his business. Asked to be pointed to the best cook, and they brought my grandmother out of the kitchen. Except the Cabrini orphanage first opened its doors when my grandmother was about eight. I did not interrupt the storyteller with this inconvenience truth.
Aunt Dot told me about her mother: Any time of the day or night, she could give you a meal. Hungry? You sit down at the kitchen table. Not hungry? Sit down anyway and like magic, brujole, pasta fazul, tomato gravy, minestrone. Three in the morning, three in the afternoon, it didn’t matter. Ma could always feed you.
Aunt Ann said, What you need to know about your grandmother is, she knew how to bide her time. Pa would get cranky and she’d smile and fill his bowl again. Then as soon as he was out of the house she’d say, I think it’s time we started the spring cleaning.
You have to imagine this. To my grandmother, spring cleaning meant taking every piece of furniture out of the house and washing from the ceilings down to the floors. Everything was taken apart and scrubbed. It took a week.
A good spring cleaning, she’d say thoughtfully. It’ll drive him nuts.
I think it should be clear by this point that I was immersed in storytelling of a particular kind from a very early age, but for a while I resisted my fate. I was the first one of my generation to finish college, and the first to go on to graduate school. My father could never get over the fact that I was at Princeton working on my doctorate. He’d call me up at all hours and say, you know, you could switch over to baby doctor, you’d make more money.
He liked to pretend he didn’t know what was what, but very little got by him.
So in my early thirities I was an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. I had four hundred undergraduate students in two classes, three graduate students writing doctoral dissertations with me, seven masters degree students to direct, the normal assortment of committees, and three books I was writing simulteaneously – one non-fiction, linguistic analysis, and two novels. At home I had a very lively toddler, and a husband with two advanced degrees – an MA and a PhD in math (generally I refer to him as The Mathematician) – who decided he needed one more to round things out, so he was going to enroll in the part time MBA course at the business school. On top of all that, I was in treatment for secondary infertility. I woke up exhausted every morning, I dragged through my day, I fell asleep over dinner. Until one day I realized that I had to change something, or I was going to go down with the ship. Something, as the expression goes, had to give.
So I started writing fiction.
What? You don’t see the logic? Wait, it’ll all be clear in a minute. The first thing I did was, I went to a colleague who was teaching a seminar in creative writing and asked if I could sit in. Then I started getting up at five to write for an hour and a half before the girlchild and the mathematician had to be roused, fed, and ushered out the door. If I was lucky, I found an hour to write in the evening. I could usually get in a couple hours on the weekend.
And that was my life for five years. While we struggled to repay student loans, scrape together the downpayment on a house, keep appointments with specialists, while I went through the crucible that is called the tenure review process, during all of that, I continued to tell stories by writing them down. How did I do it? I have no idea. But I do know this: I needed the storytelling. No matter how crazy busy my day was, I had to take that 90 minutes every morning in order to retain my sanity and equilibrium. Through all the difficulties of those years, fiction was what kept me afloat. I sold a few short stories during that time, and by the point I was awarded tenure I had two full length academic books and two novels waiting in the wings. Of course, I was also thirty years younger than I am now.
The moral of this story is quite simple. Storytelling is not a neutral undertaking. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a way to pass the time. Storytelling is an integral part of the human psyche. It’s the way we explain our universe to ourselves, and make sense out of issues almost too large to grasp. It’s how we teach the children we raise about our beliefs and social mores, the things that are important to us. It’s the way we affirm our social identities.
Storytelling, on the page or screen or stage, has very little to do with formal education. Faulkner said If there’s a story in you, it has to come out but really, that’s not exactly true. There are multiple stories in everybody. It serves you best to let them out.
One last story about my father.
Everybody in the neighborhood knew Arturo. When he retired he swore he’d never cook again, but before the week was out he walked into the corner tavern — Schneider’s — which had a full but unused kitchen, and announced he felt like making lunch. Pete Schneider was a friend of my father’s and he liked his cooking and so for the next couple years, when my father felt like cooking he’d go to market, get what he needed, and they’d put a sign up in front of the tavern. Lunch today. From noon until it’s gone.
On those days the place got really crowded. There’s a bank down the block and people came in droves to eat. At the most there would be two choices, but they came on faith — because my father was a legend, and not just for his cooking. He could get belligerent in a heartbeat, and he hated special requests. I remember him taking a plate away from more than one customer and saying, You don’t like it? Go eat somewheres else. No charge. Get out.
On the other hand, he had a huge and infectious laugh and he loved awful jokes, he was kind to people down on their luck — he fed bums (the term ’street people’ hadn’t come into usage yet) who came to the kitchen door with a liberal hand, he spoiled little kids rotten, and he was very able to laugh at himself.
My father eventually moved into one of two apartments above Schneider’s, so you could always find him there either upstairs or in the kitchen or talking to somebody at the bar. I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois and I came home at least twice, often three or four times a week. Because he demanded tribute, and because he fed me. And also because as he got older he didn’t want to be bothered with bills and bank statements and so I took on those duties.
So one day I come into the apartment and there’s a pile of mail on the table. In that pile, beyond the regular stuff and bills, are three magazines. As I remember now, they were TV Guide, Modern Maturity, and TIME. At first I was stumped, then I wondered if some neighborhood kid had come in selling subscriptions and caught my father in a weak moment (of which there were not many). So I asked him, and I got a scowl.
He hadn’t subscribed to those magazines, or to any of the others either.
The pile was in a corner. Newsweek, Harpers, RV-World. I checked the subscription label, which read Arturro Lippi. That’s a misspelling, which at first didn’t tip me off. My father could never find his reading glasses and often wrote things down in a hurry. That day I had other things to do so I let the question of the subscriptions go. When I came back three or four days later, the pile of magazines had grown to maybe twelve or fifteen different subscriptions, including Cosmo and Seventeen.
Dad, I said. Somebody is playing a joke on you.
Somebody from the tavern, I was guessing. Somebody he made mad, which did happen with some regularity. He couldn’t be bothered with the whole thing; magazines were not the way to get his goat. Except by that time the bills had started arriving. I didn’t know at first because he tore them up. When I did find out I would open the bill, write “cancel subscription” and send it off. But no matter what I did, the number of magazines kept growing. There were piles of them all over the house. Modern Architecture, Hair Styles for Today, Guns & Ammo, you name it, it came through the door. And then the collection phone calls started.
My father always treated the phone like a wild animal that needed a strong hand. He raised his voice and it always seemed to me his accent got stronger on the phone. I caught one or two of these conversations, which always escalated fast.
You come down here and try to get that money offa me yourself! he’d shout into the phone. Come on down here, buddy, I’ll show you where those magazines belong.
At this point the Time/Life books started arriving. Those series of books in hardcover? The Opera. The Wild West. The Revolution in twelve volumes.
I called the postmaster and asked if this constituted mail fraud, if there was something that could happen from that end. Nobody called me back.
The next time I was home the doorbell rang. That in itself was odd, because nobody ever used the front door. My father was downstairs in the kitchen so I went to the door and there was a young guy in full marine uniform. He wanted to talk to Arturro Lippi, who had filled out a card expressing an interest in a career in the marines.
Of course the army, navy and airforce all showed up. So did the Jesuits. Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This time when I called the postmaster’s office I was more insistent.
In the meanwhile my father had decided he might as well take advantage. Huge armloads of magazines got deposited in the tavern for people to read. For a while there you could find little old men nursing their beers over copies of People (which had just started up) or The New Yorker. The business from the bank increased too, because my father encouraged people to take the magazines with them. More where those came from!
In the end a postal inspector came to take a report. He had a huge grin on his face the whole time, for which he kept apologizing. This is a serious offense, he’d say, and then you could see him fighting with the urge to laugh. Soon after that the whole thing started to wind down and within a week or two, stopped.
It was kind of sad, actually. As far as I know they never found out who filled out those hundreds of subscription and interest cards in my father’s name, but I do know that whatever the intention was — I assume, to irritate and inconvenience him — it fell flat. My father paid not one penny, and ended up keeping the magazines that actually interested him. The ones with lots of pictures, and centerfolds.
copyright Rosina Lippi
all rights reserved