Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nothing better than a good story

From the very beginning, my life was filled with stories. As a young child, I remember many hours of sitting with my mother listening as she read all my favorite storybooks to me, again and again. She never seemed to tire of reading them, and I definitely didn't get tired of hearing them.

As I grew older, I looked forward to the visit of the county library's bookmobile. A large truck outfitted with shelves which were filled with, what seemed to me at the time, a huge array of books. My mother and I would walk up the steep hill to the parking lot of the old-fashioned general store. The bookmobile was always parked under a very tall oak tree beside the store. I would sit on a little step in front of the shelves of children's books, and choose 3 books. That was the maximum number anyone was allowed to check out. Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie, the husband and wife team who operated the bookmobile would ask, with a wink to my mom, if I thought I would be able to read all three books in just two weeks. I would assure them that I would be able to finish them before the bookmobile arrived on its next trip to our neighborhood. I knew that I would have read and reread those stories many times before the bookmobile returned.

On Sunday nights, our family would go to my Uncle Blake's farm. Uncle Blake and Aunt Beulah had a large, brick, outdoor fireplace. My other aunts, uncles and cousins would join us there, and we would roast corn in the fire, and cook hot dogs on sticks. As we sat around the fire, the storytelling would begin. Everyone in my family seemed to know endless jokes and stories. My dad was the best storyteller. He told jokes, and related interesting, and often funny things that had happened during the week. And all of the adults reminisced about events that had happened when they were children. Some of the stories were exciting, and many were funny. My cousins and I would spend a lot of time playing, but we usually spent an equal amount of time sitting with the grownups by the fire, listening to those wonderful stories.

My dad was the principal of my elementary school. He also taught 8th grade math there. He was a very tall man, and many of the little children were a bit frightened when they first met him, because he towered over them. They soon learned that he always had something funny to say, and although many of them were still a bit intimidated, most of them smiled a shy smile when they saw him, because they knew he would have a joke or funny story to tell them.

One of my dad’s favorite stories to tell was of when he was a little boy, about 6 years old.  He went to school in a one room schoolhouse.  Students at the school ranged in age from 5 to 17.  My dad looked up to the older boys in school, and wanted to do everything they did.  One day, 16 year old Paul told my dad he had a trick to show him.  Paul took a kernel of corn, the hard kind of corn that is fed to animals, and he put the kernel in his ear.  He appeared to be pushing it in very hard.  Then he moved his hand to his mouth, opened his mouth, and pulled out the kernel of corn.  Wow!

My dad was amazed!  He had never seen anything like that before.  He couldn’t wait to try it himself.  When he got home from school, he ran to the barn to get a kernel of that hard corn.  He pushed it into his ear.  He opened his mouth, and reached in, but there was no kernel of corn there.  He pushed it again, harder this time.  Again he checked his mouth, but no corn.  He decided he would pull it back out of his ear, but it wouldn’t come out.  Now what?  He decided to wait and try to get it out the next morning.  Again, no luck.  He would just have to leave it in his ear.  Maybe no one would notice.  The next day, his ear began to hurt.  He noticed it was getting red and very sore.  It wasn’t long before his mother noticed and asked him what had happened to his ear.  With his head down, he explained about Paul and his magic trick.  His mother told him not to try to do everything the older boys do, because sometimes they play tricks.  She explained that Paul had not really pushed it into his ear and then taken the same kernel out of his mouth.  My dad was so embarrassed.  The heat of his ear had made the kernel swell and soften.  His mom got a darning needle and picked the kernel out of his ear bit by bit.  His ear healed.  He never tried that trick again.  Every child who heard him tell that story smiled.  I’m almost certain that after hearing that story, none of them ever tried putting something in their ear and pulling it out of their mouth.

Mr. Mast was my social studies teacher in 7th and 8th grade. He was best known for saying those hated words, "Close your books, and get a clean sheet of paper. We're going to have a short quiz." He loved to surprise us, and I can still recall the queasy feeling in my stomach, when he said those words. Although he was a tough teacher, he was one of my favorites. His classes were filled with stories. He lived on a farm that had once been prime indian territory. His fields were filled with arrowheads and spearheads. He would bring them in to show us, as he told stories of the tribes who had left those reminders of their presence in the area.

One of the stories I loved to hear most was about Chief Tom Lion, who used to live near our town. What made this story especially interesting and exciting was that Chief Tom had lived in the area in the early 1900s, and there were many people who remembered him. Mr. Mast was an excellent storyteller, always including interesting tidbits that made the stories come to life. One of my best friends, in my class, was a boy named, Yogi. According to Mr. Mast, Chief Tom lived in the area that was now Yogi's backyard! Wow! All of the rest of Chief Tom's tribe had been forced to leave the area, but the chief refused to leave. Chief Tom didn't like the way the area was changing. Property owners didn't want him to hunt on their land, and he didn't have money to buy food. Using his ingenuity, he fashioned a belt made of animal tongues, taken from animals he had killed over the years. Wearing this belt, he would knock on the doors of area homes, and when the man or woman of the house answered the door, he would tell them that if they didn't give him food, he would add their tongue to his belt. This part of the story usually drew gasps and wide-eyed expressions. The first time I heard the story, I remember hurrying home from school to ask my mother if she had ever heard of Tom Lion. I was amazed when she said, "Of course! He used to come to our house, and ask for food, and he would tell us that if we didn't give it to him, he would cut out our tongues." I couldn't believe it! Not only was the story true, but my mom had met Chief Tom... often! She said that everyone was sure that the tongues on his belt were from animals, but no one wanted to take a chance by refusing the chief's request. I still think of Chief Tom when I drive past Yogi's parents' house today. Mr. Mast's story not only made history come to life, it gave me a personal connection to the past.

In high school, my favorite teacher was Mr Miller. He taught history, U. S. government and sociology classes. He knew stories about all of the U.S. Presidents, stories about army generals, pioneers, kings and queens and politicians. He told us about people he had known, things he had done and places he had visited. We had textbooks that served as the guide for what we were to study, but Mr. Miller always shared stories with us from many other books. Those stories were much more exciting and memorable than the dull facts of the textbooks. The stories from books like the American Heritage books, made history come to life. Most of Mr. Miller's classes included a lot of laughter. He had a way of sharing his thoughts about a historical event that made us laugh. When he explained a difficult concept, or one that he wanted to be sure we would remember, he would include a story about something that had happened in his life that related to that concept.  Oh how I loved Mr. Miller’s classes!

I heard David McCullough, the historian and author, speak a few years ago, and he stated that  history needs to be taught with emphasis on the stories of the people who played important roles in major events in the history of our country and the world.  He said it’s the people who are important, not the dates.  I agree with him completely!

After college, I began working for a local bank.  I worked with many nice people, but one of my favorites was a man named, Larry. He was the Senior Vice President of the bank, and in addition to working with Larry on a daily basis, I often had to travel to meetings with him. I never minded time spending time with him, because he had a never-ending supply of jokes and stories. I would laugh until tears were rolling down my cheeks.

Larry began working at the bank when he was a senior in high school. Larry and another teen were responsible for driving a truckload of coins to the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland each week. The bank had a vending company as a customer, and there were far more coins than the bank needed, so the excess coins had to be taken to the Fed. Larry said that he was a little nervous about being entrusted with the safekeeping of all this money, so he and Virgil, the other teen decided that they should get some type of protection. They were afraid to carry a real gun, so they chose a starter pistol, which the high school track coach let them borrow each week before they made the trip to Cleveland. (These were different times, you must remember... ) Larry said that he and Virgil felt much safer carrying the impressive looking, but useless pistol with them. He added that he never considered the fact that anyone who tried to steal $10,000 worth of coins would have trouble carrying it, or that it would take a long time to unload all those heavy bags. According to Larry, "I finally realized that anyone who tried to steal one of those bags would have had their hands full trying to lug it to their car, and we could have tackled him before he got very far." Larry was a dramatic story teller, but he would start to laugh as he approached the end of the story, and sometimes, he could barely finish it because he was laughing so hard at his own tale.

Another week, I was reviewing expense accounts for various officers of the bank. When I got to Larry's, I noticed that there were 5 pages of charges from Juli-Fe View Country Club. Most of the charges were for only 10 or 20 cents, but there were hundreds of them. I asked Larry if they were legitimate charges or if the country club had made a mistake. Larry shook his head, and said, "Oh, they're legitimate charges, but I'll pay for those myself. My wife has been taking my son, Joe, swimming there every day, and Joe figured out he can buy candy bars by just saying, 'put it on my dad's tab.' Now I have all these charges for Zero bars and Milky Ways."

Joe was involved in another of Larry's stories. One Christmas, after everyone was in bed, Larry heard a man talking in their house. He jumped out of bed, and grabbed a baseball bat from their hall closet. His heart was pounding, and it began pounding even harder when he realized that the man's voice was coming from young Joe's bedroom. Just as he was about to burst into the room, and beat the intruder with the bat, he heard the words, "This is Batman! Wake up Robin! The Joker is on the loose." Larry breathed a sigh of relief. It was just the talking alarm clock which they had given Joe for Christmas. He was a little irritated that Joe had set it for 2:00 am! And, he just shook his head, when he noticed that Joe was sleeping soundly, despite Batman's repeated attempts to wake him. I have thought of Larry's stories about Joe often as my daughters were growing up. Life with children is never dull!

When we began homeschooling, I often took my daughters to Cleveland Metroparks programs. Their favorites, and mine, were the programs led by Foster Brown, the Historical Interpreter, and Demetrius Lambert, who was a naturalist at Garfield park. Both of these individuals are excellent storytellers. They told stories that were exciting, scary, funny and lesson enhancing. Their stories revolved around facts or concepts that they wanted the children to remember, and because of the way the facts were presented, the children do remember them. I will never forget the fact that the Barred Owl makes a cry that sounds like, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?" Foster told such a long, twisting, hilarious story to make this point that it is firmly entrenched in my memory. Although it has been many years, both of my daughters still remember many facts about birds, insects, canal diggers, medicinal plants and famous Ohioans because of Foster's stories and songs. When we visited a southern plantation a few years ago, the girls knew more than the docents about the slave era, because of Demetrius' stories. Her stories painted vivid pictures in their minds that will not be erased.  Demetrius, also, shared many stories about George Washington Carver.  When we saw an actor portraying Mr. Carver at Greenfield Village in Michigan, we almost felt as though we were meeting an old friend, because Demetrius had told us about so many things he had done.  

All of these people and many more have influenced me greatly. Maybe part of it is genetic, because storytelling seems to run in my family. I know that I am a storyteller. I love listening to others and hearing their stories, and I love sharing those stories with others. Stories make difficult concepts clear. They lift burdens of sadness. They bring history and its people to life.  They make people laugh, and they make people cry.  

So many people have influenced my life and the lives of my daughters. Many of these people have died, but through their stories, they live on in our lives. They make us laugh, cry, sigh and remember. Our lives are enriched because of them.

Your children want to know your stories. Tell them about your childhood, good and bad. Tell them about your parents, your grandparents, your neighbors from long ago. Share with them, the things that have frightened you and the things that have made you laugh. Where have you found encouragement when you were down? What has inspired you or touched your heart?

We learn how to handle the events and experiences in our own lives, by hearing stories of how others have handled those events and experiences in their lives. Stories are an important teaching tool for children and adults. Share a story today!

With warm memories of many stories,


- - -

“If you've heard this story before, don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again.” - Groucho Marx

"A song ain’t nothin’ in the world but a story just wrote with music to it." - Hank Williams, Sr.

"Stories live in your blood and bones, follow the seasons and light candles on the darkest night.  every storyteller knows she or he is also a teacher..." - Patti Davis

"There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies
that did not tell stories." - Ursula K. LeGuin

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” ― Gilda Radner (June 28, 1946 – May 20, 1989)

1 comment:

  1. We're made of stories, really. They become part of us. Thanks for this wonderful story-filled post.