FROM THE DEEP END: Lies or legends?

Brenda Kelley Kim. Photo by Stevo Rood

“You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”
—Margaret Atwood

In a family, it’s a given that children shouldn’t tell “stories” or fib to their parents, but do parents get a pass on some of the tall tales they tell kids?

My dad was known for his adventures, usually told around the dinner table. I was chatting with a cousin recently who remembered some of my father’s escapades, and that’s when I discovered he had left out some details over the years.

One famous tale my father told us was about the time his friend, a local cop, gave him a ride in his police car one night and how much fun it was. We always loved hearing that one.

According to my cousin, whose father was also there that night, what really happened was that Dad “borrowed” the cruiser while his friend, the cop, was on a break and drove it all over town. They picked up a few buddies and stopped at a burger place. Well played, Dad; it was a great story, and you didn’t encourage petty crime.

I tried to follow in his footsteps when I had children. Besides caring and providing for them, I wanted to be someone they listened to and enjoyed being around. I told fun stories, even if that meant taking a little “poetic license.” I wanted them to be engaged and entertained, so I did what millions of parents do every day.

I lied to my kids.

In my defense, though, sometimes it was necessary. One of my children was a picky eater. Getting protein into the diet of this one was challenging, so when we had miso soup? I said the soup company used cheese from the moon to make the little white cubes. Cheese was one of about five foods this kid would eat, and she also loved anything to do with space.

It worked, and honestly, I would do it again. A friend had told her that the goo between your toes was called “tofu,” so there was no way I could have convinced this 6-year-old to eat a bowl of soup that had tofu in it. Moon cheese soup, though? That I could sell.

Was lying really so terrible in that instance? What about in others? Let’s think about holidays. Does any parent tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Isn’t there an entire industry devoted to a guy in a red-and-white suit with a flying sled and magical powers? Raise your hand if you’ve had a creepy elf doll in your house and blamed it for messing up the cabinets and putting the laundry in the refrigerator.

None of these traditions are problematic; they’re fun and can create beautiful memories. Legends and family lore can forge connections between one generation and the next. They make a history that is no less important than the one in our kids’ textbooks.

I got my habit of punching up a story from my father. When I was growing up, he would tell us that he saw a polar bear walking across the sandbar of Short Beach on his way home, and he’d swear it was true. Or he’d say that the “company elephant” stopped by his office to roller skate in the parking lot. It was his way of making an ordinary “how was your day” conversation just a little more fun.

I continue to tell the stories I grew up with to my children. They did not get to know my parents or grandparents, so it’s my job to keep their stories alive — fiction, reality, or somewhere in between.

Someday, if they ever come along, I will tell my grandchildren that I once saw a polar bear on the sandbar at Devereux Beach, and that he was likely related to the one my father told me about 50 years ago.

Turning a family story or a holiday tradition into a bit of a legend with some extra flair makes it memorable to the next generation and ensures that we won’t lose these precious tales and traditions. It’s like a special ingredient in a favorite recipe — it sets it apart from the ordinary.


Brenda Kelley Kim has lived in Marblehead for 50 years, and is an author, freelance writer, and mother of three. Her column appears weekly.