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The Power of Storytelling

“Are you telling me a story?” Dad asked.  These words take me back to when I was eight years old and stood in our family’s vegetable garden.  Young 6-inch-tall corn plants lay on the ground.  I held a hoe and kicked dirt off its blade.  I looked down. I’d told Dad that I couldn’t tell weeds from the corn plants and I didn’t mean to chop down the corn.  I wouldn’t look up after Dad asked his question.       

            He stood towering above me waiting for my answer, the answer Dad knew if I told the truth.  I didn’t like working in the garden, especially hoeing around plants.  So, I thought if I chopped down the corn plants, instead of chopping just the weeds and making mounds of dirt around the corn plants, Dad would never make me hoe again.

            He saw right through my plan and I cried and Dad spoke sternly about telling the truth and being honest and trying to get out of work and I had to hoe the rest of the row of corn.  At least, that’s what I remember and that’s my story.

            Story.  A word with many definitions.  Dad softened his question by saying story, not lie.  As a kid, I was told to not accuse anyone of lying – it wasn’t nice.  But it was okay to tell a story or a little white lie, especially if the truth might hurt someone’s feelings.  Outright lying was never allowed.

            When someone says, “Did you hear the story about ________?” most of us stop what we’re doing and listen.  The storyteller has our attention and we’re ready to hear about someone or something or somewhere.  The story might be gossip or rumors.  It might be factual or made-up.  It doesn’t matter – we’re suckers for a good story.

            Who tells stories?  Everyone.  Cave dwellers’ stories are etched on stone walls. Ancient Greeks created myths and legends about Hercules and Pandora’s Box.  The Bible is a collection of stories by many writers.  Shakespeare’s and Aesop’s stories, centuries old, are still read and studied.  Today, we read stories in newspapers, magazines, books, and on-line. 

            But stories are most enjoyed when they are shared aloud.  Who can forget the stories told by a favorite uncle? He told the same family stories at the Thanksgiving dinner table every year and we laughed when he began because we knew the ending.  Children tell stories when they share what happened at school or during soccer practice.  Everyone tells stories.

            I’m looking forward to hearing some really good stories at Storyfest this Saturday, May 1st.  It’s a free storytelling festival from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and we can stay all day or drop in for an hour or so.  Look for the big tent in Dogwood Park behind the Cookeville History Museum at 40 East Broad Street.   

            We’ll be entertained by professional and amateur storytellers and there might be a story or two like the one I told Dad.

Stories Told at Cemeteries

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 9.55.59 AM  I was just a young child, about 6, the first time I remember walking in a cemetery. I tagged along with Dad and Granny, Dad’s mother, to place flowers on Granny’s parents’ graves. Mom had cut yard flowers –roses, iris, snowball blossoms – and arranged them in a vase. The Rich Cemetery, a small and private graveyard, had been a part of Granny’s parents’ farm, near the Moodyville community in Pickett County, when the land was deeded to be a cemetery.

Then Mom and Dad took me to Lovelady Cemetery to decorate the graves of Mom’s grandparents. The one thing I remember: walk around the graves, not on them. As a child, I certainly didn’t want to step on dead people. I didn’t know anybody buried in either cemetery. My parents’ grandparents were just as removed from me as the person buried in a grave marked only by a triangle-shaped limestone rock and thirty feet from the other graves in the Rich Cemetery. Those visits to cemeteries were carefree, outside times.

In 1974, my maternal grandfather died suddenly from a heart attack and was buried in the Lovelady cemetery next to his parents. A few years later Dad’s mother was buried in the Story Cemetery in Byrdstown. But I never regularly visited cemeteries until after Mom’s death in 1991. That’s when I began making the ‘decoration rounds’ with Dad. How I cried and hated to stand beside Mom’s grave. But during those yearly trips I’ve learned more about the people whose graves I walk around.

A black man named Toby was buried in the unnamed grave at the Rich Cemetery. He was a slave before coming to Pickett County in the late 1800s. He didn’t have a family, lived around town, and died about 1912, the year Dad was born. My Granny’s brother-in-law requested that Toby be buried in the family cemetery, and about ten years ago my cousin had a stone, with Toby’s name, placed at his grave.

Dad’s favorite uncle is buried near his grandparents. Uncle Scott was a farmer and sold corn to other hog farmers. He put most of his money in the local bank in the 1920s and lost it during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Aunt Doris, Mom’s sister, and I went together to the Lovelady Cemetery one Memorial Day. We secured a silk arrangement on top of Papa and Grandma’s headstone and then she laid a single red rose cut from her flower bush on her grandma’s grave. Aunt Doris explained that Grandma Bertram would go to cemeteries on Decoration Day and say that all she ever wanted on her grave was one pretty fresh flower. Aunt Doris also said that because Grandma Bertram valued reading and education, she opened a community lending library in her home long before a public library came to Pickett County.

Mom and Dad chose burial plots in the Story Cemetery, near their home in Byrdstown, more than a year before Mom’s death. One day during Memorial Day weekend, Husband and I will clean the headstones and place flowers on graves at three cemeteries in Pickett County.

I’m glad to have this way to honor parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and a great uncle. Some I never knew and some I knew well and loved. How I wish I’d written more notes to remember the stories of their lives.

Memorial Day. A time to pay tribute to those who came before us.  A time to share stories. And I’ll cut one pretty fresh flower for great-Grandma Bertram’s grave.

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Storyfest – Don’t Miss It!

imgresOn a warm spring Saturday two years ago, my Grand and I sat on folding metal chairs and listened under a tent at Dogwood Park during Storyfest. Don Davis, renowned storyteller, stood only a few feet away, on a small wooden stage and reminisced about his school days. As a 6th grade teacher, I’d played cassette tapes to share Mr. Davis’s stories with students and knew I was seeing and hearing the best of the best. My 7-year-old Grand couldn’t appreciate his notoriety; I just hoped she was entertained.

As I drove my Grand home I asked, “So Lou, what did you like about Mr. Davis’s school stories?”

“Was it all true, Gran?” Yes and no. He probably exaggerated a bit.

            “But he acted like everything he said was true,” Lou said. Yes, a storyteller is a bit like an actor. Entertaining. Adding details to a story to make it more interesting.

“What’s 40 lashes?” It means being punished. He didn’t really mean he was spanked 40 times.

“So he wasn’t really hurt?” Well, he was probably spanked when he broke a school rule and it hurt. Lou sat quietly looking out the van window for a few minutes, and then asked, “Is it okay to make up a story?” Yes. As long as the person you’re telling your story to knows you made up some of it.

“His stories were funny and crazy!” Lou said.

At the end of Mr. Davis’s storytelling, he challenged the audience to tell children their stories. Simple stories of everyday life. I took that to heart – no doubt because I wish I’d asked my parents and grandparents and brother about their early lives. I wish I’d listened and remembered.

It took a long time for me to realize I don’t have to be a stage worthy storyteller to share. Did I tell you about Granny gathering eggs? Every afternoon when she walked home from the restaurant where she worked as a cook, she stopped at the hen house close the barn to gather eggs. One fall day when my brother Roger was about 8 years old, he watched Granny go into the hen house and he hid behind it. While Granny pulled the bottom of her apron into a pouch and filled it with fresh eggs from the hens’ nests, Roger gathered dried sweet gum balls from the ground. When Granny stepped out of the hen house, Roger snuck up behind her and stuck her bottom with those prickly sweet gum balls. Granny screamed and jumped and all the eggs fell and broke and splattered on the ground.

When my brother told me this story about ten years ago, we both laughed until tears ran down our faces. Roger flailed his arms high above his head and I could see Granny, wearing a cotton shirtwaist dress with a white restaurant apron tied around her waist, dropping the apron and the eggs breaking.

Two of my favorite storytellers, Jo Covington and Connie Lillard, aka The Bear Creek Storytellers, could take Granny’s egg gathering story and entertain an audience for thirty minutes. Jo and Connie share Jack Tales and children’s stories, and every time I hear them I laugh. Their words strike my heart and my Grands will love hearing them. How I love hearing good storytellers!

You don’t want to miss Jo and Connie and others at Storyfest, Saturday, April 23rd at Dogwood Park, 9:30-5:30. A day of fun and free entertainment. Bring your lunch and stay awhile.

Purple Cow Stories

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My mother told Purple Cow stories when I was a little girl.  Stories that were inspired by a poem entitled “The Purple Cow.”  Stories she made up as she told them.  Now, I share Purple Cow stories with my Grands, and Ruth, almost 4, never tires of hearing them.  I quote the four-line poem and then tell a story – whatever comes to mind at the time.

To be sure I spelled the name of the poet correctly for this column, I googled The Purple Cow and learned that Ogden Nash, who I’ve always credited with writing the poem, is not the author.  Gelett Burgress wrote “The Purple Cow” and Nash changed one word (anyhow to right now), got it published, and fooled me all these years.  And I learned Burgress gave this poem an interesting subtitle, one I’d never seen before.  Burgress’s poem written in 1895 is the version that Mother taught me.

The Purple Cow
Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, at Least.
I NEVER saw a Purple Cow;
I never hope to See One;
But I can Tell you, Anyhow,
I’d rather See than Be One.

            And I never knew until now that Burgress wrote a second verse two years later in which he regrets penning words about a cow.

Confession: and a Portrait, Too, Upon a Background that I Rue!

Ah yes, I wrote “The Purple Cow”
I’m Sorry now I wrote it.

            I’m thankful Burgress wrote such a silly verse.  My Grand laughs every time she hears it.  She wonders who’d want to be a cow, especially purple.  “Tell me a Purple Cow story,” Ruth will say.  “The one about when she fell in the pond.”  And if I don’t tell it exactly the way my Grand remembers, she joins in the story telling.  (Now I’m writing some of these made-up stories – I wish I had Mother’s.)

“Ruth,” I said to her after I’d told a story of the Purple Cow walking on an icy pond, “it’s your turn to tell a story about Purple Cow.  She rolled her eyes, tilted her head, and said, “Well, the Purple Cow walked and walked and walked and walked.  It walked more.  It saw a dinosaur.”

“A dinosaur?”  I asked.

She nodded her head, grinned, and said, “A dinosaur.  And there was a skunk on the dinosaur.  And the skunk sprayed the Purple Cow.”

“Then what happened?”

Ruth looked out the window which she was sitting beside.  She tilted her head from side to side, and said, “That’s all for today.”

I have a feeling that Burgress, the originator of the Purple Cow, would approve of Ruth’s story.  He founded a humor magazine and published books of whimsical writings and illustrations.  He became known for his humor that was based on substituting the unexpected for the common place.

And who would expect a skunk to sit on a dinosaur and spray a Purple Cow?  Only a little girl who never tires of Purple Cow stories.