Once Upon a Story
Anna G. Joujan
Copyright 2006 by Anna G. Joujan
Photo of Anna.
There was once a little girl with a hunger for stories and a head full of words. Then one day, when she was not quite so little anymore but still very much a girl, she realized that she had a story--her story--to tell. And it was indeed a story, and a story that needed to be told. And of course, there was none to tell it if she did not. And so she did . . .
why I tell stories
I believe in telling stories; more specifically, I have found that by telling my own stories I begin to glimpse the mystery and meaning that can so easily be hidden behind the daily-ness of a life.
My recognition of this drive came not so long ago, when I began to awaken in the night with the itch to tell a story. I would lie there wide-eyed and restless, feeling as though I needed to somehow give birth, figuratively speaking, and yet not knowing what sort of child I needed to bear. This was the sort of sleeplessness that does not need to be soothed to sleep; rather, it was the kind that needs to be nurtured, and gently coaxed until it can release its creative seed.
This was happening regularly, and each night it was a different event—a specific happening from my life, that was swirling about in my head.
And so I began to listen to it. When I awoke, I rose and began to write, to put words to that story. I wrote of childhood wounds, of silly anecdotes, of events in my adult life—all was fair game when it came to the need to tell a story.
The seed of the drive was taking root much earlier however, well before waking moments when I actually put words to these stories. It began when my family first moved to the U.S., and I would have those childhood introductory conversations.
“What’s your name? . . . Is that your sister?—she looks just like you.”
And then: “Why do you talk funny? . . . Why’s doesn’t your Mommy walk?”
That was my cue to explain that I wasn’t really American, not like they were. I was African—or maybe Canadian—but apparently I sounded British? . . .I wasn’t quite sure, actually . . . but Mommy is paraplegic, because she was in a car accident when we lived in Africa. Daddy was in the car too. He’s in heaven now.”
It was always the same after that—a stunned silence, or a series of stumbling apologies: sorry for asking, sorry for making you talk, sorry that happened. A quick change of the topic or, more likely, an excuse to find a more normal playmate for the day.
But I was not sorry. I wanted to keep talking. I wanted to tell them about Africa, about my family, about what my Daddy was like. I wanted to tell them how tall the trees were in my village, and how small the huts looked from high in the Paw-paw tree. I wanted to tell my stories, and I wanted someone to listen.
So when, as an adult, I began to start telling my stories, what I realized was that the telling gave life to the experiences. Whether I was telling the story of my cat’s love affair with his pet duck or the story of scaling the icy mountain to get to work in the morning, the telling was as important as the tale itself. Because somehow the words give significance to the event. And suddenly life is no longer just a string of daily routines: each day is a glimpse into the mysterious beauty of the woven whole.
There is a power in the telling. A making real. So I speak the words, and write the stories . . . and live. On this day
I remember, this day--November 30--in 1988. On this day, I awoke excited--no, more than that--I was ecstatic. I was running through lines of the Christmas program in my head, eagerly rehearsing for the program that night. You see, tonight we were performing for our families, for my family. They were on their way by this time, I knew, beginning the drive early that morning that would bring them along many lonely dirt roads, winding through villages and across open plains, to arrive here. It had been 3 months now since I last saw them, when I boarded the little Cessna on the grass strip of our village, clutching my stuffed bear in one arm and holding my sister's hand with the other. We stood there waving goodbye one last time on the boarding stairs, and then waved again out the window as we sped along the airstrip and lifted off into the air. I loved that moment of lifting off in the airplane--and have ever since--the exciting rush of becoming airborne and soaring faster and faster through the air. That day, though, my excitement of the beginning was tinged with the sadness of knowing I would be away from my family for many nights now. The days were always full of learning, fun adventures in the bush with friends and with various creatures to be discovered and trees to be climbed. The nights were the hard part, though, when I fought the tears that often came in spite of my fierce will, silently dampening my pillow while I stifled the shortened breaths that may give away my tears to the classmates sleeping near me in rows of bunk beds.
But, the 3 months since that last flight had passed quickly--3 months of good books read, math problems solved, geography discovered, play weddings acted out in free time, and all manner of grade 4 activities. I had also turned 9 the previous month, and knew my family would now celebrate my birthday and my brother's 4th birthday 3 days earlier, as soon as we made it back home. While on a shopping trip in South Africa, my Dad had acquired our first car, so the decided to make the road trip instead of Helen and I flying home as we had always done before. So, I knew they were loaded up in the Isuzu, along with 2 village friends--a teenage student of my Dad's and the Zambian pastor he worked with in our Church.
So, that afternoon, after various activities designed to keep all us boarding students preoccupied so we wouldn't be bouncing off the walls with the excitement of our families' arrivals, we all filed out the the drive-up area to await the first arrivals. I had in my mind the perfect picture of what to expect, so as each vehicle arrived, I craned my neck to see my mom's long arm waving out the window and Alex's goofy grin peering out from her lap. But the cars came, parents claimed their clamoring kids, and my picture-perfect arrival still had not appeared. Finally, a lady I recognized as the mom of some friends who lived fairly near us went over to our Dorm Mother and said something to her, gesturing in our direction. She then came and told us to go ahead and get ready for the program--not to keep waiting for our parents there.
I was disappointed, but assumed they would arrive at any moment, so just kept waiting as we practiced our songs. My mental image just altered itself to adjust to a late clamor of hugs and kisses rushed in before the program started . . . but the program came, began, and ended, and they had not arrived. The next morning we were taken to the Cessna, and told we were going to go back to the village by flight after all. This time I imagined the whole family standing there on the airstrip, coming into focus as the plane landed, with eager smiles and waves--still, no. The parents of a classmate took us in their car instead--so of course I changed my expectation once more, this time thinking they were taking us to our house where the family would be, picture-perfect, waiting in front of our little home. Instead we arrived at their house. Auntie Elaine (according to British habit, all family friends were "Auntie" and "Uncle" to us kids) finished up dinner preparations while we helped set the table. And then, instead of sitting down to dinner, she asked Helen and I to come and sit with her on the couch--"Anna, Helen--I have some really sad news . . . your Daddy went to heaven . . . " Before the sentence was finished, I had burst into loud sobs, Helen looked at me and started crying, and Auntie Elaine and her daughter were both crying and hugging us.
I don't remember any mention of the rest of the family at that point--nor did I wonder, as far as I can remember. The rest of the day, of the week, of the month, passed in a sort of a fog, in which my memories are clear but displaced, as if each memory was plucked from its proper place in the continuum of time and placed instead in some never never land of homeless moments. I remember falling asleep with fitful dreams, waking up convinced I had dreamed reality, and that Daddy would walk in and comfort me any moment. I remember being reunited with my brothers, staring at Alex's discolored and misshapen head, and carting Ian around carefully in his body cast, propping him up against walls . . . supporting him and holding his modesty blanket over his midsection as he pinned the tail on the donkey at his belated birthday party. I remember visiting Mom there in the Zambian hospital, horrified at the sight of my strong, active, beautiful mother lying there on the stretcher bed unable to move herself. At one point during a visit, the nurse had to turn her over so that she wouldn't get a bed sore. As she did so, she let go of the sheet and mom was briefly exposed to us all in the room. I didn't know whether to blush, sob, or scream--I wanted to just run away, to disappear forever into the endless, dreadfully beautiful African wilderness. I hated seeing mom like that, and dreaded the visits . . . and I hated myself for feeling that way, thinking there must be something wrong with me if I didn't want to see my mother . . . Somehow, time passed. My Daddy's funeral passed in a blur of friends, strangers, languages I didn't know, and wails I knew only too well. As soon as mom was strong enough to be transported, we were shipped to the U.S., where hospitalization and then physical rehab came for her. I hid in my books--in beautiful worlds of fantasy--to the extent that my grandmother still teases me for always having my "nose stuck in a book" as a child.
And eventually Mom was well enough to take over the care of the 4 of us again. I still don't know for the life of me how she did it--a paraplegic supporting and caring for a home of her own and 4 not-always-angelic children. She did it well . . . she loved us well. On this day, as a child, Mom beautifully commemorated the anniversary. She would buy what looked to me like hundreds of helium-filled balloons, bringing them home so that the house was bursting with balloons. Then she tied notecards to the string of each one, and told us to write notes on them--as many as we wanted, and whatever we wanted to say to a stranger. I remember writing things like "Jesus loves me this I know . . ." and "My Daddy died on this day, and he is now in heaven with God, because he loved God. I do too." I wrote silly notes, but meaningful ones, longing, in all my childhood intensity, to somehow tell the world that I had a great Daddy, and that some day I would see him again. I still catch myself, when I am still enough to listen to the deeper desires of my heart, craving moments of remembrance of my Daddy, and eagerly clasping to memory any tidbits about him that people from his past may be able to share with me. And thankfully, my own mind clamped down firmly on all the memories I had of my times with him, out of a personal need for them and, I suspect, out of a nagging suspicion that someday, somehow, there would be a greater use for, outlet for, it all.
It is one of those nights. One of those in which I go to bed knowing that I am fighting the urge to write--tonight I was thinking practically, thinking of the many hours of driving ahead for tomorrow, of the unknown road stretched before me. But the story won out over practicality--the story of my life, of our lives. And so I am out of bed and writing, resisting no longer.
In this case, it figures that the need would be so strong, considering the power of the inspiration. The words that are swimming in my head are about my Oma. She is truly a force to be reckoned with--a woman to admire, a woman to obey, a woman to love. Oma is what I have always known her as, and I am only one of millions of Germans who know their German "grandma" by the same term. Though in fact she was raised in Russia, on a remote farm where she grew up poor--so that she and her siblings in the winter sought out fresh, steaming piles of cow manure to warm their bare feet in. They moved in her childhood to Germany, however, and so she is more German than anything else, marrying a German and raising her kids to speak German. One of my uncles in fact made fun of them all once, telling me that he was amazed that any of them were able to marry, wooing a wife-to-be in such a horribly un-romantic sounding language as their own mother tongue.
But, my Oma had no trouble being on the receiving end, turning down several suitors before my grandfather won her over, surprising her when he did so, seeing as how he was younger than her. But he was a handsome, charming man, charismatic to no end. He sang in a popular men's ensemble in their young married days, and ran a successful carpentry business. Until, that is, the alcohol won him over.
It took Oma completely by surprise. They were staunch German Baptists, in a culture of normal beer and wine consumption, so she brewed her own beer and had her own wine cellar, using their orchard fruit, so that they would always be well-stocked for wedding and holiday parties. And parties they were indeed. This was a family in which hard work was a given, and real celebration was considered as much a part of life as the work was. So, when there was something to celebrate and to praise God for, the celebration was a hearty one, with much laughter and many hours of good companionship.
My grandfather, though, was a good man, a sincere man, but one whom Oma said could have been addicted to anything--he just had a nature with a weakness for addiction. During the War he fought well, and was wounded--received a medal for it, I believe. At any rate, the wound left him in constant pain from then on. So, the doctor started him on a morphine prescription that he faithfully took for many years. Until, that is, the medical world discovered the extremely addictive nature of the drug. His prescription was immediately changed to something substantially more innocuous, but by that point it was too late for him. Opa was terribly addicted to morphine, and in withdrawal as well as in constant pain again as soon as the prescription was changed. Oma was horrified at the state her husband was suddenly in and went to the Doctor begging for whatever they had changed to be changed back—he declined, apologizing for the fact that they had only then realized how addictive Morphine was.
After some time in pain, Opa began to drink more, more often and more heavily, and soon he was an alcoholic. Eventually it got so bad that he moved out, explaining that he did not want to make his wife and kids see him in such a state. And so Oma raised her eight children alone, without complaint. Oma could do anything. She was a trained chef, a professional masseuse, an amazing homemaker, and a prayer warrier. She prayed for Opa, and never considered looking for anything other than the life God had given her. The way she saw it, she had given herself to my Opa many years ago, he would forever be her husband before God, and she may or may not be with him in this life, but what did she have to do but to care for her children and, eventually, dote on her grandchildren. That she did—she doted on us all fiercely. When I was old enough to try to express my sentimentality, I made simple little gifts for her. One year for Christmas I used a rather tacky satin scrap I found, probably in the discard bin of a fabric store, to painstakingly labor over the process of figuring out how to make a pillow. And I did—I sewed a little, slightly skewed square throw pillow for her that I mailed to her from Tennessee. The last time I visited her there in Canada, 4 years ago, she still had that pillow proudly adorning the sofa (to my slight embarrassment). And when I began to shyly offer an “I love you”—a difficult move for me with my ever-loving but not openly affectionate immediate family, Oma responded in just about the best way possible. She accepted my gesture in a way that allowed me to give it freely, without embarrassment. She took it as if it were the most natural thing in the world for me to say, and gave me a rib-crushing quick hug and a “You better!” I still have difficulty hearing “I love you” without smiling to myself as I whisper a silent “You better!” to my inner child.
As I grew up, Oma began giving me about the best compliment I could ever imagine, saying that whether I liked it or not, I reminded her a lot of herself when she was younger. Oh, I hope so! If I can be a woman like my Oma, for my own children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, I will truly have lived a blessed life—God will have looked with favor upon me indeed!
But, the story I was going to tell, out of infinitely many that could be told, is the end of one story, at least—my Opa’s. After many many years alone, fighting the demons, Opa turned his eyes upward and rediscovered the God who had claimed him so many years before. He became a new man, the man he had been before the alcohol claimed him. And about that same time, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and it began its slow process of stealing his strength. As he grew weaker, my Oma began to discuss with him the prospect of taking him back in. They had already divorced a while back, after my aunts and uncles convinced Oma that a divorce was the only way she could remain financially stable as the years went on, seeing as how it looked at the time like Opa was forever lost. But, Oma decided she was still his wife, if not legally, and she wanted to care for him in his latter years—so Opa moved back home.
My senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to go to visit Oma and Opa for spring break. After thinking about it for some time, I found some decent airfare, and just knew I had to do it. I didn’t know why I wanted to go so badly at the time, but was compelled to do it. That week, Opa was doing well. They were planning for a big gathering there for Easter the next month, and everyone was excited at how healthy he was. It was the first time I had been around him for any period longer than a short passing-through visit, on our way to or from Africa, so I watched.
I watched as Oma fed him, teasing him still for his odd taste for steak prepared to be more like “leather” than steak. But she made it the way he liked it, happy when he could enjoy his meals. I watched when he persuaded my aunt to hold a cigarette in his mouth for few short puffs, sneaking in a smoke, for old times sake, when Oma wasn’t looking. I watched when his face lit up as Oma talked to him—by this time, she was the only one who could really understand his garbled speech, though his brain was still sharp. So I watched his facial expressions to try to figure out what he wanted to communicate when he spoke to me. More than anything else, though, I just watched as he smiled. And I got to see him ask Oma to start his favorite hymns. He still loved to sing, and we would all 3 sing together each night before bed—3 voices raised together in praise, a praise that God no doubt relished. Those were moments in which we could taste some small piece of that which God intended us to be, some hint of the eternal creatures we were at heart. I awoke to Oma’s frantic calls. “Anna! Anna! Come, come quick! He’s gone, gone . . .” Her voice disintegrated into a series of wails, and I ran up the stairs to see her at his bedside. “His lips—I kissed his lips before I went to bed. And I thought they were colder than usual, but I didn’t know . . .” And she sobbed—paced and sobbed. The next few days were filled with nurse visits, police reports, and phone calls to family members. Opa died in the best way possible, for ALS. Often death comes from suffocation, the throat muscles being the last ones to go. That thought had terrified him. But he actually died in peace, quietly slipping away in his sleep, after a day of contentment and of good spirits. And thus ended the story of Oma and Opa’s life together. What amazes the most about it all is the sheer redemptive grace God has for us. To put back together again the pieces of such shattered lives as these. The truth is that life, all of our lives, is full of evidences of such grace. We fall, and God picks us up again, and again, and again. And something beautiful is created in the end, something more beautiful than any story we could have invented for ourselves.
Just Another Wedding Day
It was not your average wedding. Drizzles turned to torrents as the mother of the bride read, causing the Petit Prince’s wonderings to be nearly shouted not merely mused. Guests periodically turned to neighbors to relight hand held candles after gusts of wind had extinguished them. We performed mini leg lifts as we stood, in an attempt to revive numb toes. As the priest painstakingly broke the bread with his frozen fingers, raindrops dribbled down the back of my neck from one hole in the leaky tent.
But we were actually all quite relieved at the recent improvement in our circumstances. One hour earlier, as I was putting the finishing touches on the bride’s makeup, the lights had flickered. Moments later, astonished cries erupted when the house was suddenly abuzz with lights, whirs, and hums—“astonished” because, after four days without power, we had grown quite resigned to the certainty of a candle-lit, fire-warmed, stove-less-catered, and “charming”ly rustic wedding and reception. Indeed, we were such creatures of the dark that, suddenly illuminated by intense light, I flipped the switch off, preferring to resume the makeup process lit only by rain-darkened rays filtering in through the window.
And frankly, as far as makeup was concerned, it really didn’t matter all that much; makeup and hair completed, Glenna [being who she is] had promptly re-donned her mud boots, shot out the door [with neither hood nor umbrella], and commenced with dragging benches across the marsh of a yard. Rain pouring down her face, she then grabbed the backhoe from the shed and began digging trenches to allow the deepening pond under to wedding tent to drain. Thankfully, by this point I was on one of my delivery runs to the tent, and I caught the bride in her soggy glory. I shook my head with a groan and quickened my trudge to a soldier-worthy march. I knew better, however, after three years as roommates, to put too much faith in my scolding pleas when head to head with Glenna’s dogged persistence. So I breathed a sigh of relief when she simply rattled off a string of preparation instructions and returned to the house for more bride-ish activities like, say . . . donning her wedding dress?
Half an hour later our motley crew of a wedding party assembled for the processional—if one could call it that—through the rain. As we took a quick head count the bride’s brother rushed out to join us, apologizing for his inability to locate a pair of matching shoes. I easily reassured him, pointing out my own: having drenched my feet during preparations, I abandoned my shoes for the sake of borrowed wool socks and green & pink plaid rubber rain boots. Not once did I regret that decision.
So out the door we went. Arm in arm, the two of
us bridesmaids “dum dum da dum”ed a multi-pitched
rendition of the Wedding March, while the groom adjusted his bride’s
wayward dress strap for her. The goats looked up from their grazing
as if noting our nuttiness, while the bride tugged her heel out of a
sunken mound of mud. And all was oddly perfect. I could not, for the
life of me, conceive of any place I’d rather be than in the mud
on this day—January 3, 2006—in flood-ravaged Northern
California. No, it was not your average wedding. But God in His
heaven smiled down.
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