I first started pondering the curious storytelling habits of the elderly while sitting at the dinner table amongst 12 other family members last Saturday night. The inspiration came from my Great Aunt Margaret, who is 87. I was part of a group that was tacitly trying to convince itself that our flow of conversation had not been completely ruined when Margaret had interrupted my Uncle John’s story about his fishing boat nearly capsizing on Payette Lake. At about the top of the eighth inning of John’s story, Margaret spotted what she believed was the appropriate opening for sharing her boat story, which, as it turned out, was actually a canoe story.
Margaret explained how there were all kinds of Squaws near the area where she grew up. Squaws and even some Chinks. Margaret found nothing tangential in telling everyone about the canoe that her brother Earl built one summer. She was 12 at the time. Maybe 13. Or even 14. After the most pregnant of pauses, it was eventually decided—by Margaret—that yes, she was 13 or 14. Definitely not 12. For the summer she was 12 was the same summer that Daddy had purchased the family’s first pair of milk cows. She remembered watching Daddy get up early to go out and milk those cows. Earl couldn’t have built the canoe that summer because he had to spend his spare time helping Daddy. So Margaret was either 13 or 14 when Earl built the canoe. After pausing for one more fruitless stab at choosing between 13 and 14, Margaret finally capitulated to the gods of Makes No Difference and settled once and for all on 13 OR 14.
She remembered that Earl built the canoe entirely out of wood. He was such a good stripper, she bragged, oblivious to the mild snickers that this drew from her audience. A quick perusal of Google and Wikipedia afterward informed us that "stripper" can be a descriptor for someone involved in "wood-strip building," a common method of canoe construction. Margaret had been the only one amongst us who knew this to be common knowledge. The reason Earl built the canoe was so that Margaret and her sisters could learn to paddle across a shallow pond located about a quarter of a mile from the family’s farm. And she and her sisters did learn to paddle across that pond. Even though the water was sometimes thick and muddy, they learned to paddle.
After 10 seconds of heavy silence, it was presumed that Margaret’s story had ended. But when my Aunt Ruth started to speak, Margaret, who had been staring down at the table that entire time, resumed. Ruth quickly piped down. Margaret said there was nothing she loved more than paddling across that pond. Being wedged into a makeshift floating apparatus, saddled with the task of not just holding, but sweeping, a heavy and crudely shaped ore through dense, murky water, presumably while wearing a thick, wavy cotton dress, all the while with Older Brother pushing from behind, apparently gave a young girl a sense of freedom back then. See, those were simpler times.
That’s why Margaret was heartbroken a few summers later when Daddy sold the pond and the land surrounding it. (By now, it was apparent to the group that we would not be hearing what happened to John’s boat on Payette Lake.)
Margaret dove further into the details of that summer when Daddy sold the pond. A nice man from up north had purchased the property in exchange for 10 cows and a few acres of land on the other side of the family’s farm. Also, the man later married a Squaw. This jolted the table back to life. My father stepped up and spoke for the group.
"Um, Margaret, sweetheart," he said through a friendly chuckle. "I don’t think we call them Squaws anymore." Margaret stared blankly at my father, as if he were a document needing to be placed in a file that she didn’t know even existed. Finally, she spoke. "Yeah, Squaw—he married a Squaw…"
Margaret’s tone was somehow both firm and soft, which suggested that she thought my father had misunderstood her. So, out of either revenge or (more likely) just general confusion, Margaret, in turn, misunderstood him. Thinking that the glitch my father had caused in the stream of her thought could be solved with a little context, Margaret explained how there were all kinds of Squaws near the area where she grew up. Squaws and even some Chinks.
Everyone at the table was now exchanging looks, but no one felt compelled to try and finish what my father had started. Because we all knew and loved Margaret, we quietly chose bemusement over disgust. The next few minutes featured an elaboration on the local Squaw and Chink populations, with kind criticism issued for their deficiencies and all praise offered in the form of sincere backhanded compliments. Margaret wasn’t smiling as she said any of this, but those of us who were willing to believe in her true character could see a twinkle in her cataract.
Our unspoken shock had created a new wave of energy at the table, expressed through exchanges of eye contact and smirks. Either fortunately or unfortunately, Margaret’s analysis of "copper skin" somehow meandered back to canoes. From there, the continued absence of a plot but inclusion of such details as the dimensions of Daddy’s woodshed or Earl’s ground-breaking methods of fire log-stacking, made it difficult to spot when this canoe story was winding down. Mercifully, the story ended abruptly, with its content apparently having all along been too rich to necessitate something as cheesy as a climax, motif, or final point.
Margaret rested her hands on the table and sat back in her chair, indicating that she was finished. There was a prolonged pause as everyone nervously tried to think of something polite to say that would not spark any more words from the narrator. Faint gasps could be heard as Margaret herself broke the silence. "Oh, and one more thing," she said. The group listened hesitantly. "I never had a problem with any Squaws or Chinks, but my brother Earl and I figured out pretty quickly that they were no good at paddling a canoe. Most of them just didn’t like to get dirty, even though they were already fairly dirty people."
The table burst into laughter, putting a fitting sound to the silent buzz from earlier. The laughter escalated as everyone began to realize how much they loved and appreciated the well-meaning Margaret. Beaming with delight, Margaret sat back and flashed a smile of satisfaction. For she knew that her original hunch had been right all along: she could enthrall this group with the best damn canoe story any of us had ever heard.