“Tell the truth” does not mean the same thing coming from my Gypsy dad as it does coming from my WASP mother. My dad wants the Storyteller’s Truth –poetic and universal; my mom wants the Reporter’s Truth –accurate and fact-based. I have no idea how those two made it thirteen days together, let alone thirteen years, but let’s just accept that as one of life’s enduring mysteries and move on, shall we?
Everyone believes Gypsies are shameless liars, but really, we’re just storytellers. Storytellers –the good ones, anyway– are supposed to lie (the polite term is “fictionalize”) to get to the Truth, the Part that Matters. If I say I went to a back-to-school picnic with my family tonight, spread our blue blanket in the grass, and felt our tiny piece of earth break off and drift away from the other neighborhood families forever, then you know –I HOPE– that’s not accurate. But you still understand what I’m trying to tell you, right? You understand that I’m telling you the truth about how I feel here, that I know we don’t belong, that I can’t pretend anymore that we do.
If I had told you that we went to the picnic, got there at 6:27 pm, unpacked the ribs Brian made and the Corn and Tomato Gratin I made, tried (and failed) to get the kids to eat both, fed them baby carrots and Jell-O cups instead, let them play on the playground for a little while, and went home, then you would have an accurate report of our evening. But no truth.
My dad knows when I’m embellishing. He also knows the embellishments are there to tell him something important. He knows what to listen for. I love that about him.
Of course, Accurate Reporting has its merits. If you can’t remember where you parked the car at the Mall of America, you want to be with my mom, who will tell you the car is in the West Parking Ramp on Level Three (Hawaii, yellow), on the Nordstrom side at the edge looking over IKEA. You don’t want to be with me (though I always park outside of Nordstom), because I’ll tell you a story right then about how I feel about IKEA, how I always love it when I’m walking around in there but get everything home and feel ashamed about not being able to pull off that young, fun, Swedish-cool look in my own house. You don’t care –you just want to know where the damn car is.
I respect facts, I suppose, but for me, they’re usually beside the point. “Did you really say that?” my mother will ask me when I’m telling her a story about how I reduced some bitchy acquaintance to a sniveling mess. The answer is no, usually, but what does that matter? I imagined saying it, I wanted to say it, I felt like saying it.
No story I tell is about what I said, what she said back, what I said after that. The story is about how I felt, how I feel talking about it now, so if I write fresh dialog in the retelling, it’s only in the interest of stripping away the non-essentials to reach authenticity and principle. I don’t know if it’s a Gypsy thing or just a Skluzacek thing, but my dad has always understood that. He’s a smart, perceptive man –he knows when I’m embellishing. He also knows the embellishments are there to tell him something important. He knows what to listen for. I love that about him.
I know all kinds of people who report accurate facts all day every day but never tell the Truth. Facts matter, yes, when you’re talking about grocery lists and taxes, but when it comes to talking about my life, I’m a storyteller: if you want to Tell the Truth, you have to reveal your vulnerable self, your unpopular ideas and your embarrassing mistakes and your shameful desires. Tell me you mowed your college lover’s initials into your lawn last weekend without thinking about it, tell me you took one bite out of 27 different peaches to see which one was good enough for your tiny daughter. I’ll believe you.
Tell me you mowed the lawn last Saturday and it took you 43 minutes, tell me you purchased 9 peaches at the grocery store and gave one to your little girl. I’ll also believe you. But I won’t know you. Because you’re not telling me the truth.