Whenever I visit my cousin Tanya, I’m the one who has to tell her daughter Didi a bedtime story. She won’t hear it from anyone else. And it can’t be a story from a book. Oh no. It has to be a tale of my own.
“Tell me a story, and don’t you dare lie!” she commanded the other night. She’s eight now. Her knees bent and tenting the yellow night gown, she stressed the severity of her instruction by giving me the widened One-Eye-Laser Look of Ultimate Warning.
It was all I could do to focus on not leaning back too far in the pink-painted chair I’d lined up by her bed. It was tricky, because with my feet on the floor, my knees came up higher than my sternum.
“A true story? You want me to tell you what I did today?” I asked doubtfully. I hoped she would say no because two months earlier I had lost my sales job to downsizing at the company where I had worked for 20 years. I had great relationships with my customers; could tell you what they got their spouses for their anniversaries and what colleges their kids were going to. I just didn’t sell as much as the best of them. I brought enough business for the company when times were good, but when we went through a particularly bad spell and a fifth of the staff had to go, I was among those cut.
I hadn’t been able to find much work since. I’d even taken to working off the books two days a week at a hardware story that a friend’s brother and sister ran. These were not the things that make for fun conversation with a kid.
Didi rolled her eyes with the kind of gusto that only an eight-year-old can manage. “No,” she said, exaggerating the shape of her mouth to get a deeper, more emphatic sound. Then, injecting a bit of demonstrative whimsy; “Not a real story? Yuk! Just something that tells the truth!”
I nodded thoughtfully, then began to tell her about a Leprechaun who was very sad because he could make anyone else fly, but not himself.
Didi gave me a look and shook her head.
“But that story tells the truth,” I protested.
“I know.” This time, the emphasis came with the exaggerated annunciation and the tilted head.
“I’m not completely stupid.”
It took me a moment to go on because I was aching to tell her just how right she was. She was anything but stupid. She was sharp and brilliant with a soul shimmering with the purity of childhood, that all-but-invincible but tragically temporary force.
From the kitchen, I could hear the clink of Tanya stirring milk and two cubes of sugar into my Earl Grey tea. That was the deal; while Tanya made us tea so we could talk, I would tell Didi her story.
“She’s in there waiting for you,” Tanya would say with an affectionate smirk. “It’s got to be her cousin Freddy.”
Didi was also the only one allowed to call me Freddy. The rest of the world called me Fred. Had I ever gotten married, I might have a daughter about Didi’s age. They would be good friends. They would call each other cousin, although technically, they would be first cousins once removed. But marriage had never happened for me. Despite several relationships over the years, I was beginning to see that a partner-for-life deal was not in the cards for me.
Tanya had been married for years to a guy named Kurt, who was nice enough, or so I thought, until Tanya learned that he was cheating essentially every time he took one of his business trips.
But these were adult things to think about, not topics for a chat with a child. That was especially true when talking about Kurt. Didi still adored him, and maybe that was a good thing, but I hated when she began telling me about the great things they did on their weekends together.
So I tried again to think up a story for her. I began the story of a huge and ancient beech tree that wished it could become human and speak so that it could tell all the secrets that it had sheltered beneath its branches and show off the initials that were carved into it. The tree wanted to tell the world, “It doesn’t hurt at all when you carve the initials. It only hurts when the couples that carve them stop coming.”
“BOOOO-ring!” Didi huffed dramatically.
“Hey,” I chided gently. “Don’t be mean. You know I don’t like that.”
Too proud to apologize outright, even at that age, she folded her hands and said in a pretend-imperious tone, “Try again.”
I sighed. When had she become so difficult? In the past, any story I told would get her to clap her hands in joy. And honestly, it was getting late. With no job, I didn’t actually have to get up before 9 a.m., but I didn’t want to lose the routine of rising early to look for work. And I hadn’t even had much of a chance to talk to Tanya.
As if she heard my thoughts, Tanya called out from the kitchen, “How you two doing in there?”
It wasn’t surprising that Tanya and I might share a thought; we’d been inseparable as kids and now in our 40s, we were much more like brother and sister than cousins. I called out to her that we were almost done, earning another skeptical look from Didi.
“OK,” I said to the kid. “How about a dolphin who became friends with a cat, but they could never see each other because they met when the cat’s family was on vacation in Florida and the cat lived most of the year in Ohio?”
“Why didn’t the dolphin just get a job with Sea World?” Didi asked.
“Good question. What about the cloud who wanted to learn how to swim? Or the vampire who kept biting his own lip? Or the hummingbird who dreamed of getting into the Olympic in the shot put event?”
“Silly, silly, silly,” Didi said.
I gave it some thought. Then I said, “Once, there was a story, and all it wanted was to be told.”
She looked doubtful and I tried not to laugh. But she didn’t object. She folded her arms and waited.
“This story was very sad, because a story’s whole job is for somebody to tell it, right? But nobody would. So the story went to a reporter and said, ‘Would you tell me?’ ‘What are you about?’ the reporter asked. ‘Everything,’ said the story. But the reporter frowned and said, ‘I only tell very specific stories.’ So the story went to a novelist, but the novelist was very busy not writing his own stories.”
“Wait!” Didi’s hand shot up like a very small traffic cop. “Did you say he was busy not writing his own stories?”
“Of course! Not writing a story is just about the busiest you can be. In fact, when you’re not writing a story, sometimes that’s all that you can do.”
“Even if you’re not doing that either?”
“Uh-huh. It’s all you can do, until you start writing your story. And then you have to do that.”
“Are you sure you’re not being silly?”
“Positive. May I continue?”
“Thank you. So the story was very unhappy, and it roamed all around the world, asking everyone it could find to be told, but everyone was busy. The story even asked a Leprechaun, a tree, a hummingbird, a vampire and a cloud, but they weren’t interested. They had their own problems.“
’But I can tell you everything,’ the story protested. ‘We don’t need to know everything,’ the others said. ‘But I’m already here. I can tell you how I end,’ the story said. ‘Eh,’ the others said.‘No thanks.’ And so the story continued to wander until finally, it died.”
“Because no one cared how it ended.”
She knitted her brow, and I watched her laboring to work out just what she was missing.
Finally, she said, “So wait. How did it end?”
“Well look at that!” I said. “You just brought it back to life.”