Sunday Afternoon Rocking

Telling the Tales

Once upon a time when I was a very young woman, I worked in a public library. A large part of my duties consisted of entertaining and telling tales to the youngsters who visited that entity that was so much a part of a small town with little else for folks to do beyond the work that was their subsistence. So it was to me that the elderly lady came. Her eyes bright and eager in a lined leathery face, she told me she had "tales to tell", stories her father and her grandfather and before them had told, and there was none left to hear them. She asked if she might "borrow" the children who visited our story hours for a bit in order that she might "get them all told" again.

The day she sat to tell the tales to a group of equally eager children, I did not recognize the tales. Later, and too late to preserve the woman's stories, I learned something about those stories, and hearkened back in memory to the elderly lady who once gave me and a group of children a gift none of us may ever run across again. Many there are who know "Jack and the Beanstalk", but few there are who know that Jack is actually the "hero" of a series of ancient stories featuring villainous kings and worse giants. Those stories, commonly known as the "Jack Tales" were brought to this country by the early English, and generally nurtured and passed on only in Appalachia. Some of the stories were gathered into a book early in the 1900's and preserved by one Richard Chase. I realized much later this woman had not mouthed the words of Richard Chase, nor shared only the stories he preserved. She was telling the stories as she had heard them at the knees of her ancestors, and as they had heard them before.

When I was a girl I knew all of the Mother Goose rhymes by heart, and had heard those old childhood "standards" (at least in my world) of "The Three Bears", "The Three Little Pigs", "Hansel and Gretel", "Cinderella", and more. What I did not realize at the time was that all of the stories I was told, beyond the regional folklore of the America of my pioneer ancestors, were of British, French or German origin. It was much later that I would receive the knowledge that would allow me to peg giants as British, fairy godmothers as French, elves as German, and realize my ancestry could be pegged as well through the knowledge of the stories passed on through my family.

For over thirty years now I have worked closely with children and literature. A sad thing I see happening. For all too many, there are no stories to remember at all. Their experience with traditional literature is limited to what they have seen in Disney remakes of the same, and they have no concept what has been "added" by a movie maker and what is the story as it was told by those who peopled their own past. They are hard put, many of them, to tell you "who pulled a plum from a pie" or who it is that "stole a pig". Having evening entertainment at the touch of a button, families tend to no longer gather in front of a fireplace of an evening with sewing or whittling in hand, entertaining little ones with the tales that were always told in a family. And while it is of little importance in the scheme of things whether Cinderella actually had mice to help her prepare for a ball, and whether her name was Cinderella, Ashpet or Ashenputtel, it seems to me we have forgotten a literary heritage that points us to our past.

A good thing it is, for those families so inclined, that the children's book market is now so large and varied. For children of those families who value books, they can know now the folklore of any place on earth, classics, and wonderous imaginative tales with equally imaginative illustrations. But without the stories that were told in a family, something still is missing. The "old timey" stories, told only by word of mouth and unique to a family are those that can place a family in history, in a part of the world. The "old timey" stories, told by grandparents and grandparents before them, are those that can open the doors to history and give clues to what happened to a family.

Had I not begged my grandmother for a story, and the ensuing one been a ghost story, I might never have realized an ancestor worked an iron furnace. Had I not begged a grandfather for a story, I might never have realized that the farm we called "down home" was once a hunting ground for Native Americans. Had I not begged an aunt for a story, I might never have realized where it was in this country a family migrated. And had I not thought back to the fairy tales I was also told, I might never have realized that I could match the origins of those very stories to the lines I have become acquainted with through genealogy.

Time it is, I think, to turn off the box that robs our children of a literary heritage and tell the tales. Time it is, I think, to make a pilgrimage to see what elders still live and put the children up to asking "for a story". Before it is "too late" and "past time", perhaps it is time to remember we have a literary heritage, as vital a part of our family history as names, dates and facts.

Just a thought,

Copyright ©2000JanPhilpot



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