Sunday Afternoon Rocking

The Storyteller

Her eyes would twinkle and her voice grow expressive, with well timed pauses and whispers and and fast paced excitement. My maternal grandmother would weave me stories, and all on the spur of the moment, all in answer to my own questions about "what she remembered" and "who my ancestors were". I don't think she ever realized she was, in fact, a "storyteller", for what she was doing was weaving memories into a verbal re-telling to keep the attention of a little girl. My paternal grandfather was a storyteller too, but his were just a bit different. On and on his voice would drone for hours, as he sat in a rocking chair or leaned a chair against a kitchen wall, remembering. Having not quite the same knack for drama, but a remarkable memory of events and names and places, the stories were harder to listen to, but stories nonetheless. If his voice did not lend drama to the stories, the content of the stories was nonetheless food for a ripe imagination to paint pictures. At times he would be speaking to anyone who bothered to listen, and at times he would speak to me. Sometimes he colored pictures to go with his words by bidding me to look at and touch relics from his past. And the seeds he sowed droning on and on about the things he had known have been the fodder for many a Sunday Afternoon Rocking column, many a story I have told myself.

Many years ago, so long ago I do not care to count the years, as a young teenager, I was hired to work as an aide in a public library, and I promptly found in the head librarian a mentor and a heroine. Oh, the stories she could tell! And she did, every Saturday morning to the children that arrived on the library doorstep. She took her stories from books and wove them into something magical and wonderful. One Saturday she might be dressed as a fairy godmother, complete with a silky pink gown and a makeshift wand that somehow magically could send "real sparkles floating into her adoring audience. Another Saturday she might enchant her audience with a myriad number of funny voices behind a puppet theater. I was content to watch, to appreciate, and she was determined I was to be a
storyteller too.

I admit to dragging my heels, to whining, to truly not wishing to be in the storyteller spotlight. Still she pushed and still she shoved and still she kept on until the Saturday arrived that I was the storyteller. My first story was "Chanticleer and the Fox". I am quite sure I was nowhere near the storyteller she was, that I did not nearly do the story justice, for I well remember the back of my knees quivering like jelly, and a bit of a shake to my voice as well. I seem to remember a room of restless children, and I seem to remember wondering why on earth I had chosen such a boring story. I seem to remember feeling I had to have disappointed this fine lady, and I seem to also remember a guilty sense of relief as I thought, "Surely she will not ask me again." Yet I was booked for another Saturday, and yet another, until a funny thing happened on the way to the library. One day in the midst of a story I realized I had lost my own sense of anything but what I was telling. I suddenly realized the children were edging closer and closer as I spoke. I noticed their eyes were wide and not a single little person was doing anything but listening with rapt attention. And when they roared with laughter at an appropriate point, or I heard sad "oooohs" at yet another appropriate point, I knew we were living the story together. And when a story was finished and they begged for yet another, I was hooked. I was a storyteller. I have been a storyteller now for close to thirty years.

Many fine storytellers have passed my way in the years since, some who did not know they were. University students who have never told a story, or thought they had not, have learned that they can tell stories from literature with the same rich excitement that they describe locking their keys in the car on the way to class. A stepdaughter who, as a very young girl, was first enchanted with my stories when I entered her life after marrying her father, has now gone on to become a fine enchanting storyteller in her own right. I made friends who were storytellers, and one of the favorite people in my life is a lady who can recite the Jack tales like no one I have ever heard before. I run into grown-up "children" I do not recognize, many I do not even remember, and they remind me of a story I told to a group they were in many years ago. They did not forget.

Something there is about a story that is like no other experience among a group of people. The magic and energy that flows between a teller and a group of listeners perhaps cannot quite be touched, is not quite visible and yet is truly there. For a short space of time they are connected by imagination, seeing the same pictures, pictures that are visible no where except in the minds of those experiencing. For a short space in time they share the same sort of world they might share if wrapped in the plot of a book..only together, at the same time, with the impromptu enrichments of the teller changing the tone and mood in a moment, and the spontaneous reactions of the listeners doing the same.

I tell my university students they are all storytellers. They may not realize they are storytellers, but they are. Not a class is needing to commence but what someone is dramatically telling those sitting near of a recent event or occurrence in their lives, complete with all the pauses, expressions, motions that bring the story to life and keep their classmates interest and have them asking lively questions. Oh yes. They are storytellers, if they would but apply that to literature, we can find common ground. They are storytellers as surely as my grandmother, who instinctively applied all of those wonderful attributes to her memories and the history of my ancestors. They are storytellers as surely as the grandfather who leaned his chair back against a wall and droned for hours, telling stories rich in content, laden with pictures.

We are all storytellers, and if we would but turn off the television, even log off the very computer we are reading this on now, there are listeners. "I want you to tell stories to the children," my long ago mentor and heroine informed me, "I want you to be a storyteller." I would like to say the same to each of you. Please tell stories to the children. Please be a storyteller. Tell them your memories, tell them about their ancestors, paint pictures in words, and they will never forget. You can write, and document, and lay up stories on paper that when they grow into the time of, they may read. This is good and wise. But there is something you can make sure of now. Something there is about storytelling that is like no other experience among a group of people. It is unforgettable. Your children and grandchildren will remember, will know what you wish them to know, if only you are a storyteller. And because the content is that which you are already enthusiastic about, believe me, you do not need to practice. You need only to decide, to be a storyteller.

Just a thought,

Copyright ©2001JanPhilpot



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