When my dad was a teenager, he derived devilish pleasure from vexing his sisters. He would come to the dinner table tossing a football from hand to hand. Dumping the ball onto the couch and swinging his leg over the back of his chair, he’d grab his glass of milk, down the liquid in one huge gulp, then unceremoniously slam the glass down onto the table at the very same moment his butt hit the seat.
He’d announce, “Hey, how come I didn’t get any milk? My glass is empty and everyone else’s is full.”
His mother would scold him for his lack of table manners, while his sisters grumbled about his obnoxious humor, because it was their job to refill his milk glass.
This game only really amused him. His sisters grew increasingly annoyed as he continued to satisfy his thirst for both milk and stirring up trouble with this daily ritual.
One evening, the girls filled his milk glass with castor oil. Suppressing giggles, they watched him come in with his usual arrogant, playful manner. He swung his leg over the back of the chair and gulped the tainted liquid in one huge swallow. However, this time, when his butt hit the seat, his eyes bulged out and he gagged.
“What’s wrong, David? Didn’t you didn’t get any milk? We better pour you some more,” his sisters said sweetly.
It was not as if he could complain that his milk had been tampered with since he knew better than to admit aloud what everyone knew; that he’d started dinner before everyone sat down. He looked to his mother expecting her to be incensed by this unforgivable abuse, but all he received was a suppressed smile.
“I doubt David wants more milk today, girls,” Mother said.
From that day on, my dad approached the dinner table with contrite care. He’d cast a leery eye towards his milk glass, waiting for the meal to start before giving it a test sip. He learned his manners that day, and he hasn’t swung a leg over a dining room chair since.
I’ve been told this story dozens of times by my aunts and uncles, each repetition regaled with laughter as I’m treated to examples of just what my father’s face looked like when he downed that milk laden with castor oil.
Each time, my father sheepishly grins and says, “They got me good that time.”
For there were other times, additional stories, hundreds of them, that told of past events where the four children in his happy family (all born a year apart in the 1920’s) learned about life, love and each other. These adventures defined and enhanced the personality traits that made these children unique individuals within one happy family unit.
Thanks to family stories, I know all about how my uncle Howie, the eldest, chased his siblings into a bathroom one day and threatened to break their favorite toys if they didn’t open the door, so he could “get them” for some offense that no one seems to remember exactly.
Howie’s ominous voice, called out threats, such as, “I now have Mary’s favorite doll, and if that door doesn’t open immediately I’m going to cut her hair right off!”
Sobbing at the drama of it all, the children decided they had to reach mother, who would take care of their furious brother and give him his due, so they lowered my father, the youngest, down the laundry shoot. They assumed he could slide down into the basement, land in the soft laundry below and run outside to mother, who was hanging clothes in the afternoon sun, but unfortunately, they didn’t take into account the taper of the laundry shoot. My father promptly got stuck. It took an hour for the children to decide what would be worse – leaving David wedged in the shoot forever, or opening the door where they would have to face the furious Howie, who was now shouting, “I have David’s marble collection now and I’m going to roll it down the stairs if you don’t open the door.” Mercy!
The story always remains so focused on the emotional upheaval of the children and Howie’s threats that no one really remembers how the ordeal concluded. But knowing my grandmother’s firm hand on the children, I’m guessing, in the end they all got in trouble.
I grew up in a family of storytellers, people who were quick to share tales of humor or pathos in an effort to relay to the younger generation the history and colorful antics of the family. The stories had a rich and vibrant nature; even when told over and over again, for they were “real”, starring the people we loved and longed to know better.
Seeing my parents as children, making mistakes, learning hard lessons and experiencing the world with more innocence than I would ever attribute to them, (had I not heard it from their own mouths) made me suddenly understand who, what and why they are the kind of people they are today. And knowing them in this way rooted me in a deeper understanding of who I am as well.
I don’t know if it was intentional, but all those evenings of storytelling gave us (the younger generation) far more than a glimpse of memory or a funny joke to laugh at. It gave us a sense of our heritage, at the same time teaching us family values and attitudes, because a shared sense of ethics was always subtly embedded in each and every amusing adventure that our elders recapped for us.
There was a reason these tales found a place of honor in their mind, a place where things like the location of car keys can easily forgotten, but the look on my father’s face when he drank castor oil is somehow embedded like a fossil. These events stuck because the hero of the story learned something in the process, something valuable enough to deserve sharing. My family’s habit of recanting their life lessons taught me not only the wisdom of mistakes, but that life doesn’t need to be taken too seriously, for the best stories (the ones I remember) were always dowsed in humor.
It wasn’t long until the younger generation of my family began collecting a wealth of events of their own and naturally, they began adding to the family stories.
My sister, an airline flight attendant, tells of the day she came home from one of her first trips to find her front door unlocked. Fearing someone had broken in, she went to a neighbor and asked him to check her apartment for intruders.
He went inside for a few moments, then came out and said, “It’s safe, no one is inside, but I’m afraid we have to call the police. Your apartment has been ransacked! It’s horrible!”
My sister pushed the door open and rushed in to find her clothes dumped on the floor everywhere, food tossed about and furniture askew. Her house keys, however, were neatly hanging on a peg, proving she had forgotten to lock the door (again.) What she was too mortified to admit was, the “ransacked” apartment looked exactly how she had left it. (She was the notorious slob of the family). Mortified, she convinced her neighbor that she really didn’t need to call the police, since nothing appeared to be missing.
She straightened the mess, and avoided her neighbor for months afterwards, hoping she wouldn’t ever have to admit the person who “ransacked” the place was her. From that day on, my sister professes, she never left her apartment a mess again. In fact, she’s became a very organized, tidy person as result.
Through this and many other stories, I’ve learned about my sister as someone evolved from the childhood version I experienced firsthand as the younger sibling. She’s offered me a mental picture of her life as an adult, the people she’s encountered, the places she’s visited, and the adventures she’s stumbled into, so even though her life is far removed from mine, I know her as the adult she is today.
The tradition of swapping colorful renditions of life is simply natural for children exposed to storytelling from youth. My husband and I both share our life stories with our children. They listen, chuckling or awed, unaware that their moral fiber is being woven through a tapestry of tales told by parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They are assimilating our history, our heritage, our beliefs and our fondest memories each time they enjoy seemingly purposeless tales that bring a smile to everyone’s face.
Of course, storytelling is not unique to this family alone. It has been a method of teaching heritage and community for centuries. On the surface, it’s plain good entertainment, but at the same time, storytelling offers up the opportunity to orally pass on tradition, ethics, and wisdom in a way that sustains a listener’s interest and leaves room for interpretation. No fire and brimstone speech can have the profound impact of witnessing a tale passing by with a moral shadow dragging in it’s wake. A story unfolds and people listen, unguarded. Open. We embrace the message because the story is not about us, exactly. And yet, in time, we find most stories are about us, for great stories pivot on undeniable consistencies of human nature.
Everyone loves stories, as is witnessed by the popularity of books, movies, and TV. You would think the art of oral storytelling would get lost in this jumble of high tech alternatives, yet the simple act of telling a story is embraced by people everyday. Stories are swapped at parties, work and in people’s living rooms. But nowhere is the love of storytelling more evident than at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, where each October thousands of people gather for three days to hear international storytellers perform.
Since we enjoy telling stories ourselves, my husband and I thought it would be fun to see how “professionals” share a tale, so we made arrangements to attend. After a five-hour drive through scenic mountains, we arrived at the small Tennessee town and waited in line at the <ST1Storytelling Center</ST1lace for tickets. Ninety-five dollars for a one-day pass seemed high to us for listening to a few people talk, yet no one seemed to raise an eyebrow as they paid for the opportunity to sit in open-air tents to hear people weave tales about their lives, folklore or fairytales. Couples juggled seat cushions, thermoses and blankets as they poured over a map and schedule, planning which of the seven huge tents, erected around the closed-off historic city limits, to visit first. Over twenty-five artists were featured, though it is only possible to see approximately five in a day. Since we had no clue of what to expect and we were unfamiliar with the popular storytellers of the day, we chose the closest tent. After this, we decided to meander each hour to another tent, thinking it would be fun to listen to whatever subject matter or storytelling style we stumbled upon. We could always return another year to take in those performers we would miss this time.
The first artist we heard was a Lakota named Kevin Locke (his Indian name is Tokeya Inajin, meaning “The First to Arise”). He told stories of Indian folklore combined with modern day jokes. Clad in ceremonial dress, he played the Northern Plains flute and performed the complicated hoop dance of his tribe as well, making him seem much more a performance artist than a simple storyteller. We found ourselves laughing, sighing and gasping in amazement throughout the hour as we watched this man share history, tradition and a dash of Indian philosophy in native stories enhanced by music.
Next, we listened to Sheila Kay Adams who shared stories from the small mountain community in Western Northern Carolina where she was born. A ballad singer, she also sang us a song. We laughed at the antics of her unassuming country neighbors who boiled life down to basic principals and reacted with monotone acceptance to whatever upheaval country life tossed their way.
The next speaker we watched was Queen Nur, a woman who told stories of the celebration of life through the African oral tradition, her voice peppered with blues songs and ditties. Her expressions and attitude were thick with black personality, her program focused on stories of hope and desperation from Katrina as she spoke of the courage and heroic actions that took place during the catastrophe within the fellowship of black Americans.
We listened. Entertained. Music was gracefully incorporated into each telling experience and the artists employed dramatic interpretation to make the stories vivid and powerful. But for all that we were having fun, we did not feel particularly touched by these tales, for the stories all seemed hinged on cultural truths that we could not relate to. They were fascinating stories. Educational. Fun. But somehow, we felt excluded, as if the fact that we were not from the storyteller’s circle of experience reminded us that we were nothing more than an audience. It felt almost as if we were intrusive of the intimacy the storytellers worked to create, as if these were stories meant for other’s ears, for people of their similar background and or cultural heritage. Suddenly, it felt obvious why we had to pay to sit with the crowd to hear these stories. This was a calculated performance rather than a chance for friends to share a poignant truth , which is what storytelling had always been to me.
I began wondering about the connection of intimacy and storytelling. Perhaps the greatest value in oral storytelling is embodied in the common threads, the relationship, between the teller and the listener.
While wondering about just this, we wandered to the next tent to see Donald Davis, perhaps the most popular voice at the festival with dozens of CD recordings and impressive awards to his credit.
Davis appeared to be a simple man in his sixties with a white beard and receding hairline. He wore jeans and he addressed the crowd with such down to earth ease it felt as if we were all squished into his living room to casually talk, rather than jostling for seats in a circus-sized tent. He told a story about his first job as a sixteen-year-old working at the neighborhood drive-in. As he spoke of his demanding boss Daphne (with “daffy knees”) his fellow teenage employees and the life lessons he learned working in a world where the dark hardly camouflages what really goes on, we became riveted. We began chuckling . . . then, laughing out loud. Soon we could barely contain our guffaws. Because his story was not only bizarre and funny, but we’d been there. He spoke of a time and place every middle aged American in the tent knew and loved. We remembered firsthand the flimsy popcorn boxes, throwing trash out our window after the movie was done, and wrestling with the speaker hanging on our window. We knew all about the “unmentionable things” he hinted that were happening in the rear of the parking lot. And who among us hadn’t hidden a friend in the trunk of the car at least once?
Davis’s story was his to tell. It was about his particular experience. But it was our story too, for his tale brought us to a time and place we understood and had fond memories of. And he told it with such humor and honesty that we found ourselves laughing at his silly story . . . but also at our own.
I left this hour thinking that storytelling had many purposes. I savored those stories that taught me about different cultures and life views, but I was most moved by the stories that helped me understand my own life experiences better.
Later, my husband and I sat under the stars on a blanket by a gentle creek to hear Halloween ghost tales. They were not particularly scary or thought provoking, but they were reminiscent of stories shared at the slumber parties of my past, where the point of the story was just to create goose bumps on everyone’s arms. Snuggling in the cold with hundreds of others, our eyes pinned to the spooky gazebo where the tellers took stage, had a particular appeal all its own. The sheer simplicity of the event created the intimacy I seemed to need to accept that these stories were meant for me. But in the end, the stories were not nearly as memorable as sitting close with someone I cared about.
Storytelling can accomplish many things, from sharing history, philosophy and wisdom, to just reminding others that they are not alone in their experiences. They serve as entertainment, education and can be a vehicle for establishing cultural ritual. But I think what is most poignant about storytelling is that it involves a teller and a listener, joining together to preserve a moment in time.
It is wonderful to read a novel or sit in a theater to see a film, for these are stories that take us outside of ourselves to adventures we might never be exposed of on our own. But nothing can compare to the emotional satisfaction of sitting and looking into another person’s eyes and having them share something deeply personal with you, giving you a chance to reflect upon your own life.
What can be more poignant than hearing from a person’ own lips. “This is what it happened . . . “
When it comes directly from another’s mouth, without pretense or self-serving purpose, you believe it.
And you learn because of it.