Revising an Old Family Story

                                                published in the Tillamook County Pioneer, 4/17/2022

                                                                        by Neal Lemery

            “We are collections of stories, we are vast houses in which stories come and go, and if we don’t listen for them, and savor them, and carry them in our pockets, and share them, then we have nothing, for stories are compasses and lodestars… stories are how we live.”

                        –Brian Doyle

            I’m a collector of stories, stories from family, from friends, from my own adventures and experiences in life.  Every day, I experience a story, and probably a lot of stories, if I pause to think about the day, and what has occurred, what I’ve seen and heard and felt.  Stories are all around me.

            Sometimes, I’m aware enough to realize that I am, indeed, experiencing something special.  I need to capture that, before it moves on, and leave me wondering what I experienced, and if it was worth remembering. I often leave the good stories, the gems of the day, on the side of the road of life, thinking that it wasn’t worthy of my time. But if I think about it, those are often the gold in the day, stories that need to be told. They have value in being remembered and shared.  

            Stories sometimes are incomplete and need to be added to in order to reveal their true mystery, their complete wholeness. In that new retelling, with new details and plots, the story truly shines and becomes even richer in our lives.

            When I was a kid, my family would tell the story of my great uncle, who was a dory fisherman on the Oregon coast.  In 1913, he drowned, and his body was never found.  It was a tragic tale that my grandmother would retell every Memorial Day, when we went to the old family cemetery to tidy up the graves and lay some flowers from her garden. 

            She would tell the story as we picnicked at the cemetery, after our work was done.  She’s point to Uncle Guy’s gravestone, and tell us he was a handsome man, a good man, a teller of jokes, and that they never found his body.  His parents put up the headstone, giving him a place among the family members who had died.  That act of placing the headstone gave them some peace, and a place to come to and mourn.  He was only 26.  

            It was a sad story, but also a story of love and family, a story that gave some meaning and peace at our Memorial Day tradition.  

            A month ago, the story took on an added dimension.  Out of the blue, my e-mail box had a message from someone in Indiana, inquiring whether I was the son of my mother, and that the writer had discovered some family letters I might be interested in.  

            We began a vigorous correspondence, and I learned that great uncle Guy did not die alone, but was with his friend from Indiana, and another fisherman, and that the friend had drowned alongside my uncle, that neither body was found.  The survivor made it to shore, reporting that a sneaker wave had capsized them on an otherwise calm February day, near Haystack Rock, by Pacific City, Oregon. The survivor did all he could to save the other two, but they all grew cold and weak, and he had to swim to shore to save himself.

            The letters were written by my great grandfather, telling the Indiana family of my uncle’s friend of his death, of not finding the bodies.  There was mention of his steamer trunk, and that my grandfather was going to send it back to Indiana, so the family could have some solace, some tangible memory of their beloved.  The man had left his wife and children and had traveled to Oregon, and much of the last part of his life had remained a mystery to the family.  

            They were curious about the deaths and the tragedies, and so I told them the stories of my grandmother, and the stories I knew about the perils of being a dory fisherman, the unpredictability of being out in the winter ocean in an open boat, powered only by oars, and not wearing life jackets.

            I found newspaper articles that told the story, briefly mentioning the inconsolable grief of my family.   My new friends in Indiana had scanned the letters of my great grandfather. I recognized his handwriting, from my childhood times of looking at old family books and cards.  I could see how his hand trembled from grief over his son, as he told the stories of how they searched the beaches for weeks on end, how the oars had floated onto the beach, and how they yearned to find the bodies, to no avail. 

            Other family conversations now made sense to me, including my grandmother’s and mother’s avid admonitions to wear life jackets when we went boating.  No one had made it clear to me the connection of Uncle Guy’s drowning and not wearing a life jacket, and the family mandate about boating safety and precautions.   

            In Indiana, that family had talked about their son and husband, the substantial amount of money my grandfather had arranged to send them from Uncle Guy’s friend’s bank account in Oregon, and the arrival of the steamer trunk my grandfather had sent.  The trunk is still in the family, and was a safekeeping for my grandfather’s letters and the studio photo taken of the two men a few weeks before the ill-fated fishing trip. 

            A copy of that photo was on my grandmother’s dresser all the years I knew her. I realize now that her copy was edited, omitting the friend, and only showing the stern face of my great uncle. As was appropriate for the times, he was formally dressed in a vested suit and tie, and not in the canvas pants, wool shirt, and rubber boots of a fisherman. 

            Now, I have more questions for my grandmother, but she passed on many years ago.  Like so many stories, the telling raises more questions to be asked. Many may never be answered, that silence adding to the mystery of life and the need to be the methodical storyteller. 

            Both families now have better stories to tell, with more details, more complete about the loss that devastated so many back in 1913.  I think I know my great uncle a little better, the stories of my grandmother now fleshed out. The family story is richer now, more complete. 

I now have my own copy of that photo, the complete one, of two good friends who were going to go fishing on the ocean in February.  I look at their faces, part of me yearning to sit down with them after their day of fishing, and tell me the stories of their lives.


Candlelight: A Story Teller Visits the Youth Prison

Candlelight: A Story Teller Visits the Youth Prison

We gather in a circle, to hear from the story teller who has quietly appeared among us. His quiet presence is greeted with respect; admiration for his time with us six months ago, his quiet message of hope, and healing, and his wisdom.

We share an opening prayer, a sense of being at peace with the universe, and with our souls. And, a sense of coming together.

Each of us is invited to tell our names, where we had come from, and a bit about our own journeys. All of our experiences, all of who we were, and are, and are becoming, are welcomed into this circle. The chaos of our lives, our pain, our joys, are all welcomed and accepted, without limits.

In this prison, there are many stories of tragedy and pain, loss and suffering. Some of those experiences are given voice today, in this circle, and are accepted and acknowledged. There is no blame, no judgement today; only acceptance and compassion. And, in the telling, there is healing, perhaps a sense of understanding and forgiveness.

In my community, there are many prisons. But, when I come here, I can see the physical fences, and the locked doors. At least when I come here, the walls and the barriers to freedom are obvious. For so many away from here, their walls and locks take other forms, and may not even be known to those who are locked away by the prisons in their lives.

Some of the young men offer a hint of the pain in their lives, the violence, the drugs, the abandonment and anger; the absence of community. Others nod in agreement; such pain is so common in this place of acknowledgement and healing. They are here to change. And in that work, they find direction and hope. They do this together, united for a common purpose. In this place, being aware of the possibility for change, for unconditional love, is part of the air they breathe.

The storyteller’s visit is part of that change, that opening of doors to understanding, to acceptance, to personal salvation and love.

Several young men offer their gifts of song, opening their hearts, and touching our lives with the beauty of the moment and their own journeys.

Others offer a wooden staff to the leader of the drumming circles here. She comes here and leads us in prayer and song, giving the young men, and me, her unconditional love and guidance through troubled seas. The staff, adorned with beads, and feathers, and other symbols of hope and love, is a gift back to her of what she has given here. Their decorations and gifts and blessing of the staff fills the room with that sense of community. We pass the staff around the circle, each of us offering a blessing, a wish, an acknowledgement of the power of others to change our lives. The power of that sharing and healing fills all of our hearts with love.

The story teller told us of his life, and his sister’s recent death. He spoke of the tragedies in her life, and how, through all the pain and loss, she still loved people unconditionally. His loss and his pain are mirrored in the faces of the young men gathered in the circle. A sense of knowing that pain, and compassion for others grows in the room. This place is safe now, a sacred place for being in that pain, and having our own sparks of humanity accepted.

Unconditional love is his message today. In his native stories and tales, in his words about his own life, the message is repeated.

In our lives, and our experiences, and in our pain and sufferings, we are preparing ourselves for the work ahead. There will be times when our presence, and our unconditional love for others, will change lives. What we are going through now is merely preparation for the gift giving we will do in the future.

One young man offers a song in memory of the storyteller’s sister, filling us all with sadness and hope and a bit of that unconditional love.

Others give voice to their struggles, their anger, their work to become healthy men.

The storyteller leads us in a dance around the circle, holding hands, all moving to a drum beat, singing an ancient, timeless song. In movement, we become one; there are no leaders and no followers. We became community, accepting and united.

Stories are told, letting us nod and laugh together, hearing his tales, and joining together in the acknowledgment of his story. His work brings us together, to a feeling of being one, of each of us having value, of being accepted for who we are, right now. And, again, judgement is suspended. Unconditional love lights up the room.

Telling our stories is what we need to do in our lives. In our stories, and in the stories of others, we find acceptance, and we find community. As we drum together, sing together, and listen to our stories, we come together. We are one.

In my heart, I touch my own pain, my own losses, my own doubts and fears. The storyteller’s songs of love and acceptance, and of his own pain and his own journey through life brings me renewal. That spark of humanity, of the power and force of love as a healer, as a single candle that can light the entire room, is fed by his quiet presence in our lives.

In all of our eyes today, I see acceptance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and unity in all of what we experience in our humanity. We become a stronger community, telling our stories, finding acceptance and hope.

–Neal Lemery 11/4/2012

In the Listening

I should never assume I’m in charge of the agenda.

The other day, I had a visit with one of my young friends at the local prison. I’ve been mentoring him, and he’d been teaching me, for quite a while. Visiting day was turning out to be the best day of the week for me, on a lot of different levels.

I had our time all planned out. I brought food, some of his favorites, and coffee. I brought my guitar, and planned to play a game. I even laid out, in my mind, what we’d talk about, as we ate, and played the game. Silly me, thinking I’d be in charge of our time.

Yet, when I arrived, he didn’t even open the bag from the restaurant. He barely sipped the special chocolate frappe I’d brought in. My guitar stayed in its case, and it was obvious he had a lot on his mind. His first words pushed me into the nearest chair and he took command of our time, his eyes sparkling with determination to speak his mind.

He talked, and told stories about his life, his family, and his fears. I heard about his grandma, and his most challenging wrestling meet, and how his coach believed in him. The coach was the first man who ever thought he could do anything in his life.

The restaurant food grew cold; there was a different hunger in the room today. It wouldn’t be satisfied by the burgers and fries.

I heard about his best friend shooting someone at school, and what it was like to watch that, and hear the gunshots in his high school hallway, what it was like to turn around and see his friend firing the gun and the other guy falling, and bleeding. And how he helped get the gun away, when the magazine was finally empty, and how it fell, clanging, on the hard linoleum floor, by the blood.

I had to remember to breathe, as his words quietly tumbled out, words without emotion, just relating the events, him being a reporter of what went on, as he watched a murder.

He took me there, his words painting a picture of his fear, and his empathy for his friend, and why his friend’s anger boiled over into gunfire. He didn’t cry, he just spoke, his voice firm, the sentences turning into page long paragraphs. I wondered if anyone had ever heard this story, even after the cops arrived a few minutes later, and took his friend to jail, leaving him in that long, cold hallway, next to the bullet riddled body, the empty magazine, and the blood.

His eyes told me it was not my time to ask, only to listen.

I could only nod, later occasionally offering a full sentence of empathy and understanding. His words tumbled out, keeping a steady pace, as the hand on the clock on the wall spun around, once, twice, and half again.

Finally, he took a deep breath.

“I guess our time’s up now. Can you come next week?” he said quietly, unfazed by his two and a half hour monologue, his story of murder, and loneliness, and losing a friend.

“Sure,” I said, nodding and giving him a hug. He hugged back, bear like, taking the sack of cold burgers with him.

“I’ll heat these up in the microwave. Thanks.”

When I got home, I took a walk, in the autumn afternoon sunshine, and looked at the colors of the leaves falling from the trees, and the last of the summer flowers, ones that had survived the first few nights of frost. The air was still, the rays of the setting sun still warm on my skin.

There were no birds, no insects, not even a breeze in the dying yellow leaves on the maple tree, as if the world knew I’d had enough listening for a while, and needed to let all that settle in, to find a place for what I’d heard that afternoon.

I heard his stories, again, in that silence, and let his tales sink deep into my soul. And, in all that, I realized I’d been given the gift of knowing him better, and in letting him finally be free to tell his stories and find his own way.