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Senility Etiquette

A question of manners: What is the proper way to inform a friend that you have already heard the story they have started to tell for the 53rd time?

Equally vexing: What is the proper thing to do when the look on the faces of others makes it clear you have embarked a story they have heard 53 times before?

Do you stop mid-sentence? Do limp onward, hoping that the story will bear retelling?

As senility advances, these questions become more important.

One friend’s wife has decided that he should number his stories one through 46. When the urge arises, he can just say, “Number 39!” She will dutifully laugh, go back to her newspaper and be saved the agony of hearing the whole tale once more.

Some politely say, “Yes, you mentioned that!” as a way of cutting things short.

Others patiently fold their napkin and listen with tolerance.

If people want to be nasty, they wait to inform they already have heard the story until they spot an inconsistency with a previous version.

“Last time you told that, you only saw 400 deer,” they’ll say, pulling the rug right out from under you.

At that point, I stop and let somebody else tell a story. When you get caught inflating the number of deer present, it’s pretty much over.

Many stories detail youthful indiscretions, things you can talk about now that the statute of limitations has expired.

The trouble is, if we mature at all as we get older — and that is not guaranteed — we create fewer new stories. We’re stuck retelling the same ones over and over for the good reason that our lives have gotten boring.

If you sit on important boards or run a local business, it is probably best not to climb the water tower at three o’clock Sunday morning. There are risks to creating new stories. So, you tell old ones.

To solve these dilemmas, I have decided to rely on the old proverb: “Do unto others as you wish they would do to you if they had it in them.”

When Uncle Wilbert starts the story about rolling Grandpa’s 1936 Dodge into a Hereford cow, I resolve to act interested, look him in the eye, nod and laugh as if it is the first time I have heard it in my life.

I will look for variations, but not to pin him down. Rather, I will study the variations to understand why the 1936 Dodge came up at this particular instant.

One elderly relative adapts every story to suit the present situation. If I stopped her from telling the story because I had heard it before, I would miss the latest twist.

She was thrown from a horse sometime between World War I and World War II. That is the basic story. However, the story can be varied to explain any present ailment.

If her back goes out, it was due to that horse. If she gets forgetful, it is because she hit her head on a rock on the way down. Sometimes she’s mad because her Dad left her alone with a skittish horse, other times she’s disgusted that he spooked the horse by dropping the hitch on the hay wagon nearby.

You just never know how the story will end.

Storytelling is not journalism. The truth is never the point. The point is entertainment, or maybe a lesson.

Truly good storytellers know that they have told the story before but take care to improve it each time.

“He’s so full of it,” we say about such people, but think about it: you never, ever stop a good storyteller from telling a story you’ve heard before. The fun of it is hearing how far things have stretched since the last telling.

Kids know this.

“Tell the one about the dog eating the Thanksgiving turkey!” they say, eager to hear Grandma go through the whole story again. Grandma adds new spice to each telling, and the kids laugh harder each time.

Until they grow up. Then it is all facts, facts, facts. “That’s just a story, Jeremy, don’t believe everything Grandpa says.”

Middle-aged killjoys.

Once again, the very old and the very young get it while the rest of us don’t.

So, a couple of rules:

When you hear a story for the tenth time, humor the teller and listen hard. They’ll probably respond to your attention with a new and improved version.

And when you tell a story for the twentieth time, make darn sure it sounds better than the nineteenth, even if it means increasing the number of deer.

One Comment

  1. Cheryl Zuur January 18, 2014

    One of the funniest essays I’ve read on this very contemporary topic. Young people may have no patience for the stories of their elders, but I often wonder if they will have any interesting stories of their own to tell someday. “Wow, I remember when I stayed in my room and played games on my computer all day!”
    I have two story tellers in my life and I’ve naturally gravitated toward your advice along the way, ie try to coax a new angle or a new lesson out of the tale so that I don’t strangle them or start rolling my eyes. The first story teller is my husband. He is 63, so not that old really but he was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at age 54. Within two years it took both his knees and then a few years later, his hips. All of those joints are replaced so he can walk but even some days that’s a challenge. He lives with a lot of pain, and sadness, about what he’s lost. So his stories are understandably about his youth; when he won the high school track record in the long jump, went surfing, hiked up rivers to fish, went skiing, and worked hard at a physical job. All those things are gone now but the stories live on and I’m glad to listen to them.
    My aunt is 84 and in the first stages of Dementia. Her stories go way back and they involved my father’s growing up too, so I’m always glad to hear them and try to ask new questions because once she is gone there will be no one left who knew my father as a child.
    My favorite saying about getting older is about how simple things get; you only need one book, one movie, one friend and one story to get by. You read the book over and over again, watch the movie once a week, and tell the friend the same story.

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