Because he lived in another state, I only saw my grandfather two or three times a year. Each time he came, however, he brought his stories, the same stories. He would tell me many stories about my mother (his daughter), stories about how she would spend too much time doing her hair, stories about how she almost died from an appendicitis rupture, stories about her love of animals.
While my grandfather’s stories were repeated each time I saw him, the stories were never the same. Sometimes the endings would change. Many times the facts in the middle would change. When I first noticed the inconsistencies, I began to grow impatient with my grandfather and wondered why he was altering the facts.
I eventually realized that by his stories he was communicating underlying truths and just because the facts changed, the stories didn’t alter the fundamental message that was meant to be conveyed. My grandfather was conveying powerful messages to me through his stories.
My grandfather’s use of stories reminds me of the themes treated in a movie entitled “Big Fish,” and by the novel by the same name written by Daniel Wallace. The main characters in “Big Fish” are Edward Bloom and his estranged son Will. Edward is dying of cancer and Will and his new wife come from afar to support Edward in his last days with the hope of possibly seeking a reconciliation of lost feelings between father and son.
Edward, like my grandfather, was a teller of tall stories. In fact, the estrangement between father and son was caused by Edward’s storytelling. For example, Edward liked to tell the story about what caused him to miss Will’s birth. The story was so fanciful and filled with unbelievable exaggerations that Will grew impatient with his father’s obvious embellishments. According to the story, Edward caught a legendary fish that had previously swallowed Edward’s wedding ring, and this is why he missed Will’s birth.
During his visit, Will happened to speak with the doctor who attended his birth, and explained that his birth was, in fact, uneventful, and that Edward missed the birth simply because he was out of town on business.
A quote from “Big Fish” at least partially explains why Edward told his fanciful story about the fish, as well as his other tall tales.
“You’re not necessarily supposed to believe it … You’re just supposed to believe in it.”
Edward, while making up facts, was telling truths that needed to be remembered. The stories that embodied these truths were mechanisms to convey truths to the people he loved, to show his love for them.
Eventually, Will caught on to the concept of conveying truths to loved ones through stories. As Edward was dying an ordinary death, he asked Will to tell him a story. Will made up a story on the spot, describing for Edward how Edward died, incorporating many of the elements and characters of the tall tales his father had recounted over the years. In fact, part of the story included the big fish, the river and other parts of the story Will was so annoyed with. After hearing the fanciful story of his death, Edward peacefully and happily passed away, figuratively and literally in his son’s arms.
At the conclusion of “Big Fish,” it is clear that Will is telling the same or similar stories to his own son, thus allowing the truths contained in the stories to be perpetuated.
We are in the middle of summer. Hopefully, we are all spending time with the people we care about. As we sit together and share quality time, perhaps we can remember the importance of telling stories containing meaningful messages and life lessons we wish to pass on to future generations, even if the details of those stories change from telling to telling.
Another quote from the movie summarizes the underlying message – “When a man’s stories are remembered, then he is immortal.”