This weekend I was invited to the 40th birthday party of a man I don’t know very well. This reality was compounded by the fact that I was soon surrounded by his closest friends and family—all people who knew him very well. I tried my best to stick to the periphery of the gathering, trying not to draw too much attention to myself lest I be cast out as an intruder. What I witnessed at this party, however, was a bit of magic.
Much of the man’s family—including his two parents—is deaf, and about an hour and a half into the party, guests were asked to gather into the living room for “storytelling.” I watched as first his mother, then his father, his cousin and his younger sister, each took the proverbial stage to relay memories and stories about the guest of honor. I listened to tales about his attempted homicide of his baby sister with an over-zealous bottle of baby powder, his winning homecoming court and prom king in the same year of high school, and his affinity for shirtless wrestling and Guitar Hero. The storytellers—aided in part by an ASL interpreter—told their stories with gusto, gesturing largely with their hands, their bodies, and their faces, pulling down the corners of their lips to pantomime mock-anger or smiling widely at the punch lines of their own jokes. Needless to say, I’d never experienced living-room storytelling with such abandoned joy. And because I don’t know the man very well, I felt as though I was witnessing a special, private moment usually reserved for only the most intimate of acquaintances.
I also noticed that none of the guests was checking his phone during the stories. Everyone—me included—was totally enraptured by this exchange of old memories. The storytellers made us feel a part of them: the memories, the stories, their lives. I don’t exactly know how they did it, but in that moment, the love in the room was palpable. The hairs on my arms stood on end, my heart ached with happiness and amusement. I felt alive.
This communion of memories made me realize the importance of congregating together, leaving our distractions at the door, and simply enjoying the story. A good storyteller will introduce new worlds of which the rest of us can only hope to be a part. And it’s the master storyteller who makes us forget that the story wasn’t ours to begin with.