My Father, Storyteller

Stories

My father, the consummate storyteller, with his brother-in-law (left) and one of his fraternity brothers (right) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Many of my earliest memories involved sitting at a table listening to the stories that my family and their Latvian friends shared. Sometimes it seemed as though the only things that they had salvaged from the invasions and occupations of their native land were those stories. The ones most often told were not grim. Rather, they evoked smiles and much laughter. “Those were crazy times, and we were crazy people,” they seemed to say. My own life paled in comparison.

My father was the master of that sort of story. From him, I learned that no matter how serious the subject matter, you had to engage your audience. That meant using colorful characters, compelling plots and humor. Always humor. My mother, in her latter years, when I had taken over the task of taking care of things, showed that she could tell such stories, as well. But while I was growing up, she reminded me the there were other types of stories, some too horrible to tell others and many I would not want to hear. And they did not necessarily refer to past events. People like her brother were still imprisoned in gulags or oppressed by the brutal Soviet system.

When I started writing fiction, I started with the sorts of stories that my mother once tried to tell me and saved the fun stuff for a subsequent novel. I felt that it was important to address the difficult parts of my life first. That led to what will be a linked collection, Cold and Hungry and Far From Home. The title comes from a line in, as I recall being told, a Russian lullaby. I have not been able to locate it but will never forget how my father once sang it. His Russian was as fluent as his native Latvian, and he had a beautiful baritone singing voice.

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ILSE MUNRO

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