Last night I returned to Seattle after a three-day whirl-wind trip to the Midwest where I witnessed the marriage of my cousin Amy to a tall, handsome gentleman named Brandon. The bride was beautiful; the groom affable and a little goofy. They both danced, with each other, with their friends' children and then apart, one half of the new whole twisting the night away as the other graciously worked the room of two-hundred-some well-wishers.
It was a Catholic wedding and the reception was held in the banquet hall adjacent to the church. A modest crucifix hung above the dance floor. From there Jesus looked down on the celebration as he did his own sort of twist.
During the wedding itself my father was tasked with reading the two stories from the Bible that would provide the undergirding for the ceremony's authority. My father possesses a warm and comforting reading voice that I became accustomed to hearing as a child during Sunday mass. Kneeling, standing or sitting in those hard, wooden pews, I often listened to him sing with the choir, his baritone voice, slightly pinched, stretching to hit the tenor notes. Out of all the voices, his was the clearest, a clarion call. My favorite services, though, were where he would take the lectern and read, as he did for his niece on her wedding day.
First he read the part from Genesis where God puts Adam to sleep, removes his rib and makes the first woman. Later he read from Ephesians, in which the author instructed, "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord," before imploring, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."
My father was the first storyteller in my life. From the lectern, he told tales of deep troubles and great hope as I listened, along with a community of friends and family. As a result of my interest in the stories my father told, I also took interest in the stories told by the priest each Sunday--the canonical gospels that recall the life of Jesus Christ--and listened with great interest as the priest bridged the gap of relevance during the homily, explaining to the parish why these ancient stories are important to us today.
My interest in these stories didn't lead to a devout life within the Church. On the contrary, I think that my interest in the stories that created the Church--or that the Church created--is what eventually lead me astray. Once you start paying attention to the fine print, it becomes more difficult to sign on the dotted line.
Still, sitting at Amy and Brandon's wedding, I was reminded of the power of that setting, the gravitas of my father's voice and the great joy I find in the contemplation that comes after a well-told story. The Church, I was reminded, didn't necessarily make me want to be a good Catholic; but it did undoubtedly make me want to be a good storyteller.
Fortunately I come from a family of great storytellers. I don't know if it was the Church, exactly, that inspired the stories that my aunts, uncles and cousins tell. The craftsmanship of them--the set-up, the arc, the pay-off--points less to an instruction in piety than to the need for entertainment that results from a childhood spent on a country farm.
My uncle Dick tells stories of an old acquaintence whom the Baumgarten boys had nicknamed "I". That nickname is a simple device that is boundless in its comedic possibilities. "Dick, tell us about the time I fell in the river." The request itself is a punchline.
The poetry of these stories, I credit to my late grandmother Marge. She was a schoolteacher and, even after she quit that job to start a family with by grandfather Lyle, she wrote poetry. She died when I was three, so I never really witnessed her brilliance in person and I have yet to uncover any of her poetry. But I do find proxies of both every time I go home for a wedding, a funeral or a holiday.
On the night of the wedding, after the garter and bouquet had been thrown and the last disco light was cast on the visage of Christ, a few of my uncles, aunts and cousins gathered in a hotel room. We sat around--no TV, no music--and told stories. On this night, for whatever reason, we were interested in mischief. My uncle Oris--husband of my father's sister Doris--told about the time he and a friend broke 300 eggs just for fun.
"You're an outlaw," said my cousin Kurt before telling his own tale of a dead racoon, a high school locker and a memorable stench.
Oris countered with a story of how he accidentally turned the electricity off for an entire neighborhood and then spent the evening evading the police.
"I think the statute of limitations has run out for that by now," he said as we all laughed.
"Now what about you, Mark?" my aunt Doris said, turning to me. "I'm sure the statute of limitation has run out for some of your stories by now, right?"
Photos: (top, from left) Lyle Baumgarten, with sons Dick, Bert, Paul, Jack and Tom, my father; (bottom) Marge Fenske at her schoolhouse.