I come from a long line of Storytellers. If I asked my mother what day of the week Christmas fell on this year, her answer might take a few minutes as she reckoned it against the events of last year.
“It was on a Wednesday last year, I know that, because I remember thinking I wouldn’t have to iron that week, Wednesday being my ironing day. And I know it was last year because that’s when Emma’s grandbabby was born. Poor little tyke had to have an operation of some kind. I forget now. Had to be in the hospital for several days and Emma was just beside herself. I had to go over and help her with the housecleaning, she was so upset. She had all that company, all the way from Oklahoma, you know. Her two brothers, Pete and Buddy, and their wives and five kids, the oldest only seven, her great Aunt Mary, in a wheelchair, and Aunt Mary’s lapdog. Meanest little cuss you ever saw. All of them there to see the baby. It was a crowd, I’ll tell you that. Poor little tyke. But he’s OK now, you’d never know anything happened. Such a pretty baby. And smart as a whip. Emma’s so proud.
So since it was Wednesday last year, it must be on a Thursday this year.”
If all of that sounds a little convoluted and tedious, you don’t come from a family of Storytellers. Nothing happens in isolation to a Storyteller.
“The Wreck At Sugarmill Junction” is inspired by an accident that happened in a small town near my home in Louisiana. The accident itself was unremarkable. Nothing much more than a slightly damaged squad car. What interested me was that no one who witnessed the accident saw the same thing. Not even close. But even more intriguing was the Storytellers’ strong sense of place. Each identified themselves in unique relationship to their community, relating the story in the context of the place and people they knew. The Storytellers savored, almost seemed to taste, each detail in their narrative. In the long years away from home, I had forgotten about the Storytellers’ version of the news. I was spellbound, a child again, for a moment in time, hypnotized by the lyrical cadence of the speech, the escalating excitement as the story approached its apogee, the dramatic conclusion, the inevitable coda, “Oh, and another thing…”
Storytellers cannot be rushed. They require a peaceful setting. A porch swing accompanied by mending and fresh lemonade is ideal, but a vegetable garden or a kitchen will do. Storytellers do not frequent Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The story is based on fact, but details can be altered if need be to make the point. Truth, not fact, is what Storytellers are about.
And my mother’s storytelling; while mixing biscuit dough, hanging clothes on the clothesline, sewing, picking peas from the garden; in the midst of life is where I learned our family history. Here is where I met my ancestral heroes and villains (in Mother’s opinion), learned about my grandmother’s struggles in the Great Depression, and her mother’s difficult life in the “War Between the States.” Here is where I formed my concept of right and wrong, good and bad, what is acceptable behavior and what is definitely not.
My mother worked hard. There were no vacuum cleaners, automatic dryers, microwaves or air conditioners. Our food came mostly from our gardens and stockyards, not the local A&P. My clothing did not come from Neiman Marcus, my mother sewed it on a vintage Singer sewing machine. She did not have the luxury of sitting down every morning with a Moleskin journal and a pretty pen to write her memoirs. Her stories were her memoir.
I am afraid we’ve lost the art of storytelling. At the least, it’s a dying art. In our large cities, the people, places and things around us provide little more than a backdrop for our busy lives. We rush past traffic accidents with no thought for the victims, more than a little annoyed that we’ll be late for whatever seems crucial at the time. We read in “bytes.” I wonder how War And Peace would make it in our “Haiku world”. But there’s no chance of turning back the clock, and the idea of that is no doubt better that the reality. But, every now and then, I just need to listen to a Storyteller.