Learning by listening to familiar stories, colorful people
By Abe Villarreal
In the 2003 movie Big Fish, a busy corporate business type is the son of a dying man. They meet up as the father, stricken with cancer, is experiencing his last days. The two have grown distant. The son feels that he doesn't know his true dad.
True to his character, Edward Sr., on his death bed recounts stories of his past, unbelievable tall tales of big fish, a walking giant, twin sister performers, charismatic circus personalities, and a witch who can tell the future. Edward Jr. has heard these stories over and over, and as he hears them again, he feels like he just doesn't get who is real dad.
We all have those dads or grandpas in our life. Over a cup of coffee, or just sitting on your front porch, quiet moments turn into conversations you feel you already had. One of my favorite high school teachers, whenever I catch up with him, begins a talk by saying "Do you remember the time…"
Most of us are probably too nice to say that we remember, or that we heard the story last week. We listen and hope that time passes by quickly. We chuckle and nod at the same point in the story like we did the last time we heard it. Meanwhile, someone is happily telling us something that is important to them.
I think that's what we forget about those favorite grandpa stories. We forget that grandpas or nice neighbors are telling us something they think is important for us to know. Maybe we will learn something or maybe we will just be entertained. Either way, they want us to hear it.
Edward Jr. felt like his dad wasn't being straight with him. How can a witch foretell the future? How can an ordinary person like his dad have met so many interesting people? What is real and what is fantasy?
I remember my grandpa telling me stories of his time as a Seabee in the Navy. They included tigers chasing him up palm trees, adventures in foreign lands and exotic places. Who knows, maybe they were all true. He died when I was 15 so I never had the blessing of sharing adult conversations with him.
The difference between me and Edward Jr. was that I like to remember my grandpa just the way he wanted me to remember him. He was funny and a hero. He experienced life through the great depression and World War II. He traveled to different states and countries.
He was a lot of things to me. Mostly, he was what he wanted me to believe he was. Maybe, if he would have lived longer, I would have had the chance to know his "real" side, or maybe I already did.
Edward Jr. struggled with this conflict of real versus fantasy. His problem was that he didn't give his dad permission to be the man that he wanted his son to believe he was. He couldn't accept it.
At the end of the film, as he takes his final breaths, Edward Jr. investigates the facts behind his father's life and tales. He is surprised to learn that many of the people he has heard of in stories are true people. Finally, he comes to the realization that maybe his dad, despite a few colorful exaggerations, is really the true dad he was blind to recognize all his life.
I like unbelievable stories. If you pay close attention, not to the details but to the people, you will see the faces of storytellers come to life. They get wrapped up in emotion and happiness when they feel that they are blessing you by sharing a story that means so much to them.
Sure, you've heard them time and again. You know how they will end. Next time you hear them, take a moment to really listen to why they are telling you this story and why it's important to them.
You may take away something you didn't hear before. You may learn why the story is important to you, too.
Abe Villarreal writes about the people, culture, and traditions of America. He can be reached at email@example.com.