Thursday, February 4, 2010

Some thoughts on the power of storytelling by Kathleen Delaney

The other day I picked up a copy of a volume of short stories by Sharon McCrumb. In the preface, she writes about growing up in a family of storytellers. Her father, her grandmother, everyone would gather around the porch, or table, and tell stories, about the family’s adventures in settling in the Blue Ridge mountains, about the funny things that happened, the struggles to carve out a life there, about the deaths and the births, and she talks about what an impression those stories made on her. She says that is where she got her love of stories, and it most likely is.

I know that’s where I got my love of them. My father also was a great storyteller, and oh how we loved to listen to him He grew up in Pipestone, Min. and moved to Lemon, SD when he was a young man, and he made those years alive for my brother and me. They had two ponies, Barney and Dick. Those horses pulled the carriage, took my father and his brother into town and to school, and helped my grandfather plow. The stories were so real, that although I never met those horses, I feel as if I had.

Other stories weren’t so happy. My heart still stands still when I think of how Dad lost his dog, Shep. They were making the move to SD, and Dad was to ride in a boxcar with some of the livestock. He’d broken his leg right before the move, and was on crutches. The dog jumped out of the car during a brief stop, and Dad couldn’t jump out after him. The train started to move and, although Dad frantically called to him out the open boxcar door, the dog couldn’t catch up. The last he ever saw of him, the dog was chasing the train, and loosing ground. They advertised all up and down the tracks, but the dog was never found. I heard that story over sixty years ago and it still brings tears to my eyes.

The stories we loved weren’t all family tales. The Saturday Evening Post came to our house, full of all kinds of stories, but not too many my brother and I were interested in, at least not when we were really young. But there was one series we loved, and reading those stories became a beloved ritual. I don’t remember who wrote them, maybe I never knew, and don’t remember even one title, but to us, they were the Babe and Joe stories. Babe and Little Joe were children about our ages who lived with their father and their Uncle Pete on a ranch somewhere in the mid-west, I think during the depression. Uncle Pete wasn’t very respectable, to be honest, he—drank.

Their mother had died and their father was having a hard time hanging onto his land, but they all somehow made it through each story. My brother and I loved them, and each week we searched the pages for a new Babe and Joe story. If one appeared, the ritual began. The magazine was carefully put on the table beside the chair where my father sat, for one of the best parts of the stories was Dad reading them aloud. We waited impatiently for him to get home from work, then attacked him with the joyful news.

Another Babe and Joe story had come and he needed to read it aloud to all of us, right now. But of course we had to wait. There were clothes to be changed, dinner to eat, and dishes to do. Those were probably the only nights my mother got help with the dishes with absolutely no fussing from us. When all was ready, my father would take his chair, my mother would settle in on the sofa, and my brother and I would sit cross-legged on the floor. Dad would pick up the Post, carefully find the page, and begin.
I’ve wondered if the stories were really that good, or if it was the ritual we made of the reading of them that made them so special. We don’t seem to do that anymore, have those kinds of family rituals. It’s hard to gather the family around the computer, and somehow even congregating around the TV doesn’t quite make those kinds of memories. And today, there is so much out there, we are bombarded with information, social networking, twittering, texting, all kinds of things.

But they’re not stories. Really good stories, about people we like and have learned to care for, will never be replaced with a tweet. At least, I don’t think so. Short blurbs on Facebook will never reduce you to tears, ones that you remember for years, and those blurbs will never make you rejoice for someone you’ve never met when they finally achieve the goal they have been striving for. I know, we’ve all seen the atrocities that are captured by cell phone cameras, and those impressions certainly last.

But stories take us all over the world, they take us back in time, and they take us into the lives of others, They let us experience adventures we might never otherwise have, and they make us care about people we would never otherwise have met. And by doing that, hopefully they give us greater insight into our own lives and relationships. But best of all, stories are about sharing. Whether its your father telling you about his growing up or Dick Francis taking you over fences in a steeplechase in England, you are sharing, experiences and emotions both.

So, get ye to the library, or to the bookstore, or just sit down and talk to your grandma, your elderly aunt, your mom or dad or your kids, and really listen. You just might learn something about one of them you never knew before, something about your family that makes you laugh. Or cry. And, you might even find yourself saying to someone you love—“let me tell you a story.”

No comments: