Biff America: Hard times and good tales
Annie Oakley shot my father in the face at a Brockton, Massachusetts, Wild West Show in 1920.
Legend has it my Uncle Bill O’Malley sparred with Rocky Marciano and held his own for three rounds. Rocky went on to be the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world.
My Great Aunt May gave birth in the attic on a hot Quebec afternoon while her father hosted a Knights of Columbus picnic. She was not allowed to call out in pain because the child was out of wedlock and only the immediate family knew she was pregnant.
These are a few family stories repeated over the years. Some of the facts could be blurred in the countless retellings, but the substance is true. Since I was a small boy, I have been fascinated by stories of “life in the old days.” Much of my reverence is ill founded because had I actually lived back then, before modern medicine, I might not have lasted long due to a ruptured appendix, strangulated hernia and aversion to manual labor. In spite of all that, I’ve always been very fond of narratives of even ordinary events in my family’s past.
CREATING THE FUTURE
Truth is, the most common of lives are filled with events that are both dramatic and far-reaching. Seemingly innocuous happenings, both good and bad, set the course of the future. Had a certain desperate relation not been hired to some menial job allowing him to support his family, the trajectory of that life and that family would have been drastically different. That job — shoveling coal, working in a factory, unloading ships — literally changed the course of family history.
I’m sure it would be challenging for today’s parents to regale their kids with family lore. When today’s children can fight intergalactic war on their smartphones, it’s tough to get them to sit still for a re-hash of the crushing defeat of Dad striking out four times in his first little league game and the life lesson that followed.
My father and mother were great storytellers. Both were children of immigrants from large families rich in history and scandal. I was the youngest of six children. When compared to my siblings, I was intellectually unremarkable, but I’ve always been a good listener with a good memory.
Though my family was comfortably middle class, the hardships of the depression were still very fresh in my parents’ minds. Many of their tales dealt with the cold realities of servitude and misfortune, but most concluded with a positive message of growth and gratitude for even simple pleasures. Stories of my mother’s life as a maid and my father receiving a banana as a Christmas present helped me more appreciate my new Sears and Roebuck bicycle.
OPEN YOUR EARS
The stories often reflect an inflexible morality, old-country mystery and stark examples of a hard world. The grandfather on my father’s side dissolved a partnership in a small trucking company when he found his partner had stolen a shovel from a farmer who helped them out of a snow bank. My mother’s Mum Bridget, who came from Ireland alone at age 13, could tell the future with tealeaves. She told me that I’d grow up to be rich and handsome. (I think she had been drinking.) My father’s brother Donald once had a tooth pulled without Novocain. (He said it hurt.)
All of the stories mentioned were, of course, filled with embellishments and background expressed with each teller’s unique style of delivery. But to enjoy a good story, you have to listen.
The injury my father sustained from Annie Oakley barely broke the skin. (In her later years, Annie used buckshot; a stray pellet hit him.) The promoter of the Wild West Show offered to buy my dad a hot dog for his trouble, and my old man asked for the nickel instead. I never met my uncle Bill O’Malley, but everyone says he looked exactly like my brother Mark, who also is a tough guy. My Aunt May eventually got married and had two kids — she reportedly made a lot of noise during delivery.
Life today is tomorrow’s stories — but only if you listen …
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bergeron’s new book, “Mind, Body, Soul,” is available at local shops and bookstores or shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul.