Struggles Turned Tall Tales, or: "Why We Tell Our Stories"

I grew up in a family of storytellers. As a child, my mom would tell me stories about her childhood after we’d recited our Hail Mary’s. Each time, she would begin with the words, “I grew up in a big, white house on 22nd Street with my mom and dad, and all my brothers and sisters…”

The stories enthralled me. I couldn’t believe one family could hold so much history in its veins. It wasn’t just a bedtime story, either. At every family gathering—every bonfire and costume party (yes, costume party)—I heard my aunts and uncles talk about the past. It was a Matya tradition; they could tell the same story a hundred times, and it would never stop sounding fantastical.

My family is loud and full of gestures and expression. They like music, old movies, and poker. They love parties. I’ll never forget the night everyone drank too much beer and decided to project an old Elvis concert onto the side of our farm garage. Near the end, while everyone was singing along in tone-deaf, shouting voices, my Uncle Mark snuck off. He reappeared ten minutes later on top of the garage roof, dressed like Elvis—wig included—dancing along to the finale.

That was not an isolated incident of hilarious grandiosity, but I would be remiss to say that the Matya family is grandiose in anything but the imagination.

My family grew up poor. When my mom and her siblings moved to Rock Island, IL, they settled in The Manor Courts—one of the roughest projects in an already rough city—before they got their “legendary” home on 22nd Street. My grandma and grandpa couldn’t afford to feed the family at first, so they enlisted help from some cousins in the area in the form of peanut butter and jelly. To this day, they all have mixed feelings about smooshed sandwiches in paper sacks.

My family collected pop bottles for change, got in neighborhood fist fights for my mom’s stolen shoes (the only pair she could have that year), and came home to meals of stale bread and gravy.

They grew up dependent. Uncle Bill spent more time raising his siblings than my grandparents did. To this day, my mother has never heard “I love you” from her parents. My grandma is still alive and kicking, but that’s irrelevant.

Ours is a family of storytellers. We take the struggles, the hunger, and the less-than-normal, and we romanticize it all. We turn it all into stories that are full of color and one-liners to mask our often stark reality.

I didn’t realize that my family wasn’t quite like others until I got to college. I understood my family as idols of the Rock Island ghetto. I didn’t understand how much of a toll their struggles took on them until I started listening as an outsider—as one of the first in the family to move away and go to college. I know now that storytelling is how we take our struggles and turn them on their heads. It’s easier to cope when you turn everything difficult in your life into a bedtime story.

It’s been my dream for years to write down all of the stories I’ve heard around the bonfires since I was little. They’re stories about digging in alleys for bottles and getting scolded by nuns for strategically placing whoopee cushions.

My parents always told me they had no clue where I acquired my ability to write. My grandma can barely spell. We have letters from generations back, and even the infamous Bertha Regan only wrote her correspondence in fragments.

In the past few years I’ve felt reluctant to admit it, but I am a Matya at heart. I turn up the stove too high when I cook because I’m impatient; I think bread and gravy may as well be manna from the heavens; and I have more social anxiety than you can shake a stick at.

But most of all, I’m a Matya because I can tell stories about my family like I’m reeling in a big fish.

My Matya-ness is what makes me a good storyteller. It is also what stokes my fire for helping other people write their own stories and do those stories justice.  My work in Simpson College Publications gives me the professional experience to live fully into my identity as a Matya storyteller in my career. It also gives me the experience necessary to assist other writers as they continue to tell their stories—stories that only exist because the writer is a Smith, or a Bates, or an Atwell, or a Johnson. We all have stories; writing, editing, and publishing—the skills I am learning in SC Publications—allow us to share them.

-- Virginia Atwell, '17