I don’t remember a time that my life wasn’t rich with stories.
My mother read me fairy tales and Shakespeare and Little Women, a chapter every night for months. She read The Little Princess, sitting in my twin bed, with me curled up next to her so that I could see the pictures. We cried together when Beth died, and when Sarah Crewe was sent to live in the attic. She read The Mouse on the Motorcycle, Magnus Powermouse, and every book in The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me, and my father would listen too, because her voice was like music. Road trips meant a stack of books in the front seat, and my mother reading P.G. Wodehouse, doing all the voices, so that none of us ever asked if we were there yet or complained about being bored.
My father would start talking , and stories would roll out of his mouth. His life had been so full of material that riding in the car or sitting at the dinner table with him was better than any TV show could have been. That was a good thing, because my parents didn’t really believe in TV. Other kids had Nickelodeon, I had stories of when my dad worked in a mortuary. I think I got the better deal.
It wasn’t just my parents, either. My grandma is full of stories about growing up in Alabama with her millions of siblings and about doing home visits for the health department in rural Appalachia. She remembers their names, and the way they butchered words with hilarious and inappropriate results, using the word “rectum” instead of “retina”. Infinitely generous of spirit, she cleaned the house before her cleaning lady came, and made coconut cakes for the woman to take to her husband who was in jail. My maternal grandparents both come from large families full of what we refer to as “characters”, and thanks to my grandma, I know everything about them.
My aunts and uncles would sit around and tell stories until they were laughing so hard they couldn’t get the words out. It didn’t matter how many times they had heard it; it got funnier and more colorful with each repetition.
I remember lying on the floor under the dining room table after they had finished dessert and scooted their chairs back, and studying their feet while they talked and talked and talked.
I never met a lot of those relatives. I never knew my daddy’s mother, but they talked about her so much, about how funny and beautiful and smart she was, that she was so real to me that one of those pairs of shoes under the table could have been hers. She remained so vivid in those stories, repeated to me over and over, that if I did ever meet her, I would know her immediately. She was so strongly imprinted into my memories and genetic makeup that it’s impossible to separate what I know of her from stories and what I’ve imagined she was like by piecing those puzzle pieces together. I have never heard her voice, but I imagine it was strong and certain, with the flattened vowels of the East Tennessee twang that I slip into when I’m around people I’m comfortable with.
My family did me a great service, repeating these stories over and over. They told stories about relatives even they had never met, who died before any of them had been born, but who had been so well preserved through the spoken word that when we sit together on my aunt’s patio, they are as much flesh as we are.
It was as though they had deliberately lived their lives in such a way that they would be certain to be remembered for hundreds of years, making indelible marks on the family escutcheon, insuring their legend for generations to come.
I heard those stories over and over when I was a child, so I can repeat them over and over to my children, especially the ones about my dad. Of all the colorful characters that make up the tapestry of my family, my father remains for me the brightest. He’s gone, and has been for sixteen years. It’s a great loss, a cosmic injustice that takes a piece of joy away from every happy thing that happens to me. My graduation, my wedding, the births of my children…they are all dimmed just a little by his absence. My great-aunts, watching my daughter play in the yard this past Fourth of July, her long blonde hair streaming behind her while she laughed and chased her cousins, said, “Wouldn’t Steve have loved to have seen this?” He would have. He would have loved every single thing about these children. He would have loved that my son wants to be a scientist, and with his Masters in Biology, he would have taken him to collect water samples to examine under a microscope. He would have loved my daughter’s fearlessness, as he himself was fearless.
I tell them about their grandad Robie, who they almost remember, who hiked the Appalachian Trail twice, jumped out of airplanes, ran a post office, and how he collected arrowheads and dove off cliffs. I tell them about their great-uncle Ted, how he could heal warts, and about the time he rode the pig across the river, caught his shoe on fire stomping out a firecracker, and played horrible (but hilarious) pranks on his sister. I tell them about their great-great grandmother, Mama Sue, who let us take spoons from her kitchen to dig holes in her back yard, who smoked a pack of Camels a day, ate gravy every morning, and lived well into her nineties, and her husband, Papa Ira, who had been a truck driver and had a blue cat, and who was as gentle as Mama Sue was salty.
When I miss them so much that I feel like my heart is actually breaking in half, I repeat their stories so that they stay here with me.
I repeat their stories so that they will be as real to my children as they were to me, and when I close my eyes, those words that come out of my mouth sound more like my mother’s or my father’s than my own.
Though every member of my family tells wonderful stories, my parents actually earned Master’s Degrees in the art. When I was about nine years old, they started taking classes from Flora Joy at ETSU. Since I was given the choice of going with them or staying home with my brother, whom I deemed to be untrustworthy as a caregiver, I spent most of that year, and a few years after that, sitting in the back of a college classroom. I was supposed to be doing my math homework, but instead, I just let the words wash over me. Dr. Joy, who is the kind of adult who notices children, noticed, and I started telling stories. I still don’t confidently know my multiplication tables, but it really hasn’t come up.
By divine providence, my fourth-grade teacher was also a storyteller, and seeing a kid without much of a niche, who didn’t play sports, make the best grades, or had many friends, and who lacked the basic ability to be comfortable anywhere, she grabbed the thing I was good at and gave me opportunities to shine. I told stories alone, for talent shows and kindergarten classes. I told in showcases, in tandem stories with my parents. I told stories at festivals, alongside people who I later learned were practically celebrities. As far as prepubescent storytellers go, I was kind of a big deal. “She got a double dose,” my dad used to say when people told him that I was talented, that I was funny, that I was animated and likable. He would, in his words, “swell up prouder than a toad on a whatnot shelf” and, beaming, declare that I was “a slice off the old ham.” My senior year of high school, I was invited to tell in the Youthful Voices tent at the National Storytelling Festival. From there, I was recruited to the Clemson Forensics team, and handed a scholarship for an activity I didn’t even know existed. (Forensics, it turns out, is just a fancy word for telling stories. If you’re good at it, they give you trophies.)
Every time I have tried anything scary, every time I dove head-first and with complete confidence into something I had no business doing, or been faced with a situation that was certain to end in failure, my parents have said, “Well, if nothing else, it’ll make a good story.” I can’t help but think that every single one of my ancestors, on both the maternal and paternal branches of my family tree, lived by exactly the same creed.
Last week, I stood alone on a stage and told a story about a tempest, about a magician and his daughter, betrayed and left for dead on an island inhabited by gentle spirits. I told stories about princes who turned into wild swans, a lion who fell in love with a woodcutter’s daughter, and about how my grandad’s cousins accidentally got baptized when they fell into a creek during a tent revival. People came, and sat in a dark theater, and did what I did when I was a child under the dining room table: they sat still and listened as I painted a portrait of my family, of their various eccentricities and the events that made them memorable, if not happy. Before the house lights dimmed, I stood in the wings, my knees shaking, full of nothing but sheer terror. The stage was mine for the next hour and a half. An hour and a half of just me, trying to keep all these people from falling asleep or walking out. I took a deep breath and remembered where I came from: a long line of people doing stupid things without fear.
“If nothing else,” I told myself, “it’ll make a good story.”