My friend and I have this competition going on whenever we meet for dinner or drinks.
At some point she begins to talk about her childhood and she gives examples about hand-me-downs and cabbage for dinner every night, and then I get started and talk about my siblings and I bathing in the same water in a small metal tub, youngest to oldest, or the fact that I didn’t eat in a restaurant until I was 9 years old… though I desperately wanted this. And then the stories become bigger and more apocryphal and eventually we just out and out lie. “We used to grind up the chicken bones really fine and use it as butter.” “We didn’t have zippers on our pants or jackets because the metal was melted down and sold.” And so on.
My favourite story to tell my children, eliciting awe, is the popcorn tale. At the age of 6 I was invited to Larry Geddert’s birthday party. My mother, face flushed and hands full of bread dough, explained that there was no money for a gift; we would have to make something. She suggested a bag of popcorn. I was mortified. Even more so when I arrived at the party and handed the greasy bag to Larry, said happy birthday, and he took it and set it aside. How do you rip open a present like that? Where’s the surprise? Still, I take perverse pleasure in telling that story. It’s got pathos and conflict and a character (me) that evokes empathy.
Another story: my father, one late winter night when I was 5, put on his coat and as he stepped out the door he said that he was going to see a man about a horse. I was ecstatic. A horse. I loved horses. We didn’t have a car that heated, we didn’t have hot water, but we were getting a horse. My excitement was short lived. And on that night I learned what metaphor and euphemism was. I also learned that there are very imaginative ways to say, “I’m going to the outhouse.”
These days I’m re-reading War and Peace. Napoleon has conquered Moscow, the looting has taken place, the city has burned. The French army begins its retreat as winter sets in. The soldiers pile carts and caleches full of valuables—dressers, oak tables, chairs, gold, trunks full of jewelry. Halfway back to France the valuables are being used for firewood, soldiers are dying from hunger and disease, the carts with their valuables are being abandoned, and horses are dying because they can’t eat jewelry. It’s a fine lesson in greed that, “bears within itself the chemical conditions of decomposition.”
Here’s another Russian story. My grandfather was a farmer in the Ukraine back in the early 1900s. Every spring, before planting, the grain to be used for seed was soaked in formaldehyde, to make it hardier. One spring, my grandfather soaked it too long. He planted it anyway, not expecting anything to grow. It so happened that a drought fell upon the land and where every other farmer’s crop was ruined, my grandfather’s grew because it was tardy growing in the first place and when a slight rain finally fell, his farm was one of the few to produce wheat.
A famine ensued, people were poor and hungry, and one day in autumn a soldier showed up at the farm asking for a little wheat. He’d heard that my grandfather had grain. The soldier was given a sack of wheat and he was told that there was no need to pay.
A year later, when conscription took place, my grandfather went to sign up with a heavy heart. He stood in line for a day and when it was finally his turn he approached the soldier behind the small wooden desk. The soldier studied him and said that he recognized him. Wasn’t he the man who a year earlier had given him a sack of wheat? Indeed he was. And the soldier told my grandfather to turn on his heel and return home. “Your generosity has been rewarded,” he said.
These two stories, Tolstoy’s and my grandfather’s, are ‘true’ in a factual way, but also true in the deepest way, in the sense that I take something from them and lay their resonance over my own life and ask the questions: How should I live? How much do I need? Who is my neighbour?
Tolstoy writes that “man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.” Tricky that—what is superfluous, what isn’t? Or perhaps not so tricky, when we begin to understand that richness is best experienced in love, family and munificence. And, on the best of days, the horse one has always dreamed of.
David Bergen has written six novels an a book of short stories. He won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for the The Time In Between in 2005, and his most recent novel, The Matter With Morris, was shortlisted for the same prize this year.