There are things that we’re all meant to do…for better or for worse, it’s what we’ve been given, and for our own sake, the best thing we can do is recognize, practice and improve upon those things….at least that’s what I think.
Sometimes those things seem like the only valuable pieces of ourselves that we have to offer…much like the Little Drummer Boy story, who played his drum when he had nothing else to offer…That is what telling stories are for me. they’ve helped me in countless ways, from helping my asthmatic 5 year-old niece calm down during an attack, (when all the while, her labored breathing was scaring me to the point of not being able to breath myself), by telling her about the luck of a cricket that I happened to spot in the hospital bathroom-to distracting a drunken stranger that seemed to have bad intentions, by telling him about how Native Americans found their way to this country and about my own distant connection to Pocohontas. Sometimes, my stories have been the only company I’ve had, which is perhaps why loneliness has never really been an issue for me, even when I’ve been alone, and doing crazy things like building a tiny fire under a bridge to help stay warm until I thought of a place I could sleep for the night, I’ve had stories to help see me through.
It was quite a natural discovery, one that didn’t require much though…it just sort of happened one day when I was a little girl, about 9 years old:
We were told to write about a memory, our favorite memory of our grandparents and though the teacher had continued talking, I lost interest and began working on my story…my favorite memory of my Grandfather.
This was one of my earliest works of fiction…perhaps my very first, for I had no grandfather…nor had I ever known anyone that seemed remotely like a grandfather to me, but that didn’t stop me from writing my story.
The words came easily… I thought about the things my mother and grandmother had told me about my grandfather, who had died a year before I was born; I knew that he loved music, he loved making his own instruments and he, like the rest of my family was pretty good at what else? Telling stories, of course. So I wrote in my very best 9 year-old style, a heartfelt story about sitting on my grandfather’s lap and listening to his stories and watching him carve his wooden instruments that later he would play for me. After the story was finished, I didn’t think anything else about it-simply turned it in and went on with my life as an 9 year-old,, who kept Kiss posters hidden in her desk because her stepfather found them too evil to allow in his house.
Two days later, I was told by my teacher that the principle wanted to see me. This of course stirred the worst dreadful fears imaginable…I had heard many things about the principle’s paddle and as I walked slowly toward the office, my hands sweaty and my stomach feeling sick, I wondered what I could have possibly done that was bad enough to deserve a paddling from the principle, who’s paddle must surely hurt loads more than the normal teacher’s paddles did…I wondered if I would be able to hold back my tears or if I would cry like a baby-ish first grader…Early on in life, I learned to hold back tears when getting punishments…regardless of the pain, I never wanted the punisher to know he…or she was actually winning…so by the time I reached the office, I had made my mind up to not let him see me cry-even if his paddle really did have holes in it-which I had been told was meant to make it hurt even more when you were receiving your swats.
When I reached his office, I found 5 or 6 other students, mostly older than me standing in front of the principle, who always seemed like he was in disguise and looked more like Charlie Chaplin with a funny moustache and an oversized wig than a torturous principle with a bad-assed paddle, but I had heard the stories, so I was expecting the worse.
Instead of a punishment, we had been called to his office because our fond memories of our grandparents had been the most touching of ALL of the stories submitted, and it was Grandparents Day, so we, the few chosen storytellers were going to read our heartfelt stories to the visiting grandparents in the gymnasium later that afternoon. It seems that in my rush to begin writing about my beloved grandfather, I had completely missed the part about the best stories being chosen to be read for the audience of old folk. (Much like then, I often become distracted and miss important chunks of information, but I’ll save that for another time..)
Most of the other kids seemed elated, but I just felt a bit numb about the whole ordeal…numb, yet relieved that I would not be receiving a swat from Charlie Chaplin that day…I walked back to the class and said nothing, simply got into whatever work we were doing, and went on about the rest of my day like every other day…until we were all called down to the gym for the special Grandparents Day assembly that was being held. I had never been my third grade teacher’s favorite-not even close, but she actually smiled at me and said ‘No, Luci, I believe you will be part of the special presentation, so you need to report to the principle’s office again’, while some of my fellow-students gave me puzzled looks, (much like the puzzled looks that I would receive in high school when my beloved English teacher, Mr Richardson picked ME to be Juliet, instead of one of the ‘popular’ girls)
We, the lucky, gifted few, in all of our grandparent-loving pride were led to the stage overlooking the gym, where I could see rows of gray-haired people all watching and wiggling in their seats, like they needed to go pee, but perhaps it was just that the wooden bleachers weren’t very comfortable for their worn and wearied backsides…who knows.
And then the principle began speaking into the microphone, which seemed especially loud-perhaps in aid of the aging ears…and one by one, the older students walked to the microphone and began reading their own accounts of time they had spent with their beloved grannies and pappies.
And then it was my turn, and up to the microphone I strolled, my first time speaking into a microphone, my first ‘live performance’ and rather than being filled with butterflies, I somehow managed to tuck the shy little, awkward me away and instead, mustered a smile and looked straight into the audience…searching for what perhaps could have been my own Grandfather or grandmother, though I only had one grandmother and I knew that she was at home, no doubt taking a nap or watching soap operas with my mother, but that didn’t stop me from searching anyway.
The sound of my own voice through the speakers was strange initially, but also pleasant, because I felt that I was actually being listened to, and as I read my story, I could almost imagine the sound of my grandfather’s instruments playing in the background…I believed my own story-and so did the audience, who gave a lot of adoring awws when I talked about how I still held on to his stories and still had his instruments even though he had gone to Heaven the year before.
Afterward, we all received a huge round of applause, and then we were sent back to our classes, and life carried on as usual…I’m not sure I even mentioned to my family that I had been chosen to read my story…perhaps I thought my grandmother would have been upset that I had not mentioned her, but at the time-living with her day in and day out, I didn’t really see just how worthy of being written about she truly was.
Of course, even after all of this time, I have sometimes thought about what I would have said about her if I had written about her instead of my grandfather, and just off the top of my head, totally unrehearsed, it would have gone something like this:
My grandmother was one of the two strongest women I’ve ever known. Even in her late 70’s she could be a spitfire-and though I thought she nagged me too much when I was small, I came to understand when I was older that she was actually just looking out for me most of the time…trying to save me from my stepfather’s spankings… Sometimes, we would quarrel over the TV-because her favorite show ‘The Big Valley’ came on at the same time my favorite show, the Monkees was on, and we would bicker back and forth until my mom intervened-usually telling me that the Big Valley was going to be turned on-whether I liked it or not…But even, though she sometimes knocked me out of the opportunity to stare at Davey Jones in all of his lovely British-ness, I still loved her and when she passed at age 78, it was a bigger shock to me than probably anyone else, because I thought she would be around forever.
After all, this is the same woman who just months earlier, had fought a snake with her walking stick and could still catch, kill, pluck and cook a chicken like it was nothing at all! She also had a sense of humor, because when she would doze off in her rocking chair, and my brother and I would tie the back of her apron to the spindles of the chair and begin spinning her in circles, she never told on us, and instead she would laugh along and pretend she was trying to smack us away. And though she was deeply religious, and I would sometimes wake in the middle of the night to hear her praying in her room, I also knew there was more to her than just being an old praying woman…after all, she would know things sometimes before they happened, events that she couldn’t have known, like when one of her children, my uncle, had a heart attack and we were at home alone together; even before the phone ring, she began crying and told me something had happened, and she was right…But my grandmother didn’t like that she knew things, knowing things upset her and she would sometimes cry-just because she had a feeling, or something told her to stay at home for the day. I don’t think she felt that God wanted her to know these things, so instead of embracing it, she feared and dreaded it. I don’t feel the same; as a matter of fact, I embrace the fact that sometimes, that voice, whom over the years has lovingly become referred to as the little birdie warns me or suggests things to me…and he’s always right.(oddly enough, this voice is a ‘he’, though I’m not sure why). This birdie has become one of the biggest inspirations for Carlos, a ghost-character, (though I’m not sure he would appreciate being called the G word), in one of my more developed stories. Besides having the ability to sometimes know things before they happened, my grandmother also raised 12 children and at least 4 grandchildren, and she was also a town mid-wife and a part of the group of people who took care of the dead when there were no official undertakers. My grandmother helped prepare them, bathe and dress them, while my grandfather helped build the coffin. She was also a bit of a stand-in doctor, knowing which herbs to pick and use for a variety of ailments and she once even helped someone get rid of a tape-worm, which was one of my very favorite stories to hear her tell, because the idea of someone actually having a huge worm-like thing inside of them was one of the grossest, yet coolest things my tiny imagination could fathom. And that leads me to the most endearing part of my grandmother, her stories. She was an incredible storyteller, and despite how many times she had told the same story, I always wanted to hear it again, and every time, the story would feel new, and would cause the same reaction that it caused when she had told it the first time. Ghosts stories were her specialty, and not just because she could tell stories that would cause goose bumps and make me afraid to go to sleep alone, but also because her stories were real-these were things that she and other people in my family had truly witnessed, from the tale of a true banshee that attacked my uncle, whom died soon after, to the story of the headless dancing-girls on a wooden bridge…These stories were my bedtime stories throughout my entire childhood, and if I could rewrite that 9 year-old’s grandparent story, I would have certainly written these things about my grandmother.
Luckily, my mother inherited the ability to tell a story just a great as my grandmother could. I only hope that I can at least write a story half as well as they have told their stories to me.Without the stories that live in my head, the very real characters that wake me from sleep and present themselves to me, demanding that I tell their story perfectly, what would I be? Besides being a mother, writing a story is the only thing I’ve ever felt at all capable of doing, at least half-way right.
So, there you have it…that’s why I write, because it’s what I’ve always done-always…even when I didn’t have a place to sleep, I had my notebook and pen…even when I was manic and doing really foolish things, my notebook was with me…spending all night in the Waffle House because I had no place to sleep, I would use napkins to write my ideas on….and despite being distracted lately by the demands of work, I’m still the same storyteller, still waking up and writing things on my tablet, still listening to what the characters want me to do for them, how to craft their stories just right, though I often fear that once I’ve shared their stories with the world, they’ll leave my mind for good and I’ll miss them terribly like lost friends, so I’ve hung onto some of them for far too long, which is selfish…I realize that now.
I’ve been asked why I chose to write, what I think I can achieve by writing, when writers aren’t often paid so well…why do I want to spend my time telling stories, and I hope that this post has made that a bit easier to understand…I never chose writing or telling stories, they chose me…and I certainly never set out to write for financial gain…though of course, it would be nice if I could earn a living simply by writing instead of telling shampoo companies how great their product makes my hair feel or how a company’s crackers are by far the very best I’ve ever tried (which I suppose is fiction-writing in a sense)…..But for me, writing is about connecting to others…this world is full of so many madnesses…its nice when you find a kindred spirit that shares the same madness as you do. That’s what writers like Sylvia Plath, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov and Walt Whitman have done for me-they said the things that I used to think I was the only one thinking and feeling…Knowing how important that connection is, and knowing how difficult it can be to find the kindred, like-minded mad spirits, that’s what pushes me to write.
I just hope that wherever my grandmother is now, she knows how much she still inspires me and I hope I still make her smile.
Love & hugs,