In the summer of 1980, Larry McMurtry, Pulitzer-winning author of Lonesome Dove, was sitting in the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas, reading an essay by Walter Benjamin, early 20th century German philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist. It was a moment of epiphany, I guess, because McMurtry would later write a book called Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, but he wouldn’t get around to it for about twenty years.
The subject of the essay was whether “storytelling” as a medium for conveying culture was disappearing, and McMurtry found it most interesting that he was sitting in a Dairy Queen as he read it. Dairy Queens, found in most little towns in Texas, represented a gathering place for local people who come and sit, for one reason or the other, and talk to each other. This communal watering hole, in McMurtry’s mind, represented a substitute for the back porches, family kitchens, or town square benches where people used to sit around, resting from the day, recalling people or events in the family’s or the community’s historical consciousness and sharing them in the form of memories, recollections, or full-blown stories.
This is usually how historians consider American folklore was handed down from one generation to another.
Perhaps true in the past, I’m not sure we currently have any equivalent to the back porches, kitchens, benches, or even the Dairy Queens, that serve as the vehicle for the younger generation learning about the older generation, if for no other reason than back porches (and front porches) are no longer included in modern house architecture. Or, maybe that extended families are no longer much co-located and don’t gather just to visit.
Whatever the reason, it’s worth my asking how much my oldest grandson knows about me, my father and mother, or my ancestors farther up my family tree.
Which, of course, begs the question: how much do I know about the people, places and events of my own family tree?
I’ve been thinking about this is because of the historical fiction novel I’m working on that’s centered around World War II, having taken my dad’s experience as a starting point for my story. My dad kept a list of when and where he was in Europe, from the time he left for boot camp until he returned three years later, and I am using it as a general progression of the novel.
I am kicking myself repeatedly for never asking him about it. It’s true that he didn’t volunteer anything, consistent with other veterans, and maybe he wouldn’t have even with direct questioning, but I wish I would have tried. We even lived a block from a Dairy Queen. I’m not sure my dad ever stepped inside the place, but maybe if I had forced him into a booth and plied him with chocolate malts, I would have gotten something.
As much as I can recall, my mom and dad and their families didn’t do much gathering and didn’t produce a lot of family stories; Only when perusing old photographs did my mom pass on much historical information. I can remember one instance where most of the brothers and sisters (my dad was the oldest of nine) gathered in the back screened-in porch of my grandparent’s house in Oklahoma, sat around on the floor, and spent an hour or so just visiting. I want to say that I didn’t attend because children were not invited but it was probably more a problem of there being no room.
Did they share family stories? Did they go through memories of people they’d known, or grown up with, or remember what their ancestors did when they were all farmers or such? Or, in my wish, did my dad and my two uncles, at least, talk about what they did in Europe or the Pacific during the war?
I don’t know. All I remember is that the evening did not end well, being as I was caught trying to smoke tobacco in a toy pipe, something that broke my mother’s heart.
But that’s a story that I’ve never told and I doubt that my oldest grandson will ever hear.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.