There I was, a scrawny, gangly twelve-year-old, standing with my back pack and tape recorder in front of a house I had never been to before. It was a small ranch house with mint green vinyl siding and white shutters. As my family car pulls out of the drive way, my mom waves goodbye and her face is covered with an exaggerated smile. She shouts out the car window, “Have fun, Honey, I will see you in a few hours!”
I roll my eyes and turn around, ready to meet my fate. As I walk up the sidewalk and pass the large white birdbath and duck under the rose covered arbor, I am greeted by the pleasant smell of fresh baked cookies. Then a thought crosses my mind, “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all!”
Before I can ring the door bell, a voice calls out through the screen door, “Hello John. You can come in, the doors unlocked.” While I open the front door, an elderly gentleman, the one that I was supposed to meet, stands up from his card table. It is covered with a 2,500 piece puzzle. I notice it is about halfway put together. The man’s face is pleasant, covered with smile lines. He comes over to shake my hand. He has a firm hand shake for a man of his age. Then he leads me over to his avocado green davenport (that is the name he gives his couch). The gentlemen’s name is Richie. His wife, Virginia, greets me from the kitchen where I see her putting copious amounts of chocolate chip cookies on a plate and pouring two large glasses of milk.
As we sit down, he asks me how my parents are doing. Then he asks me how my sisters are. He does know my whole family after all. We both attend the same church, though I am ashamed to say that I have never done more than greet him before or after church services. After a few minutes of surprisingly pleasant conversation, I finally launch into the reason for my visit. (By this time, I had fortified myself by eating three or four cookies and polishing off a tall glass of chocolate milk – I don’t drink the white stuff). I figure I am ready for whatever Richie can dish out.
Awkwardly at first, I explain that I was given an assignment by my Junior High history teacher, Mr. Dewey. He asked us to interview someone over eighty years of age. The assignment included a list of questions we needed to ask. He also told us that we had to write a report about what we learned.
Richie listens politely and then smiles before grabbing another cookie. All the while, Virginia sits in her recliner and works with her yarn and knitting needles. While I wait, Richie takes a long drink of his milk, after which he wipes the drops from his bushy white mustache. “Well, John,” he says, “I am happy to help you out if I can. What do you want to know?”
Thus, we started our conversation. At first, we tentatively waded into it. Richie was uncertain that he had anything of interest to tell me, and I was quite certain he had nothing of interest to share. Then the magic happened, the spark that comes when someone starts telling a story.
Within a few minutes, and after a few more cookies, the story had taken complete control. Life, in those moments, had become that peaceful, happy, enjoyable time, when everything else seems to fade away and all that is left is the eternal now. The minutes flew by as Richie told me about growing up in Northern Michigan on the family farm. He told me about the day to day parts of his life that seemed so far off and distant to a kid who was only twelve years old. He told me about driving model-T cars up the steep winding valley roads – backwards! — because they had more powerful gears going in reverse. He told me about finishing high school during the depression and getting a job at the CCC work camps in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. About that time, Virginia joined in and got out the old photo albums. I had long since forgotten about my school assignment or filling out my questionnaire.
Richie’s words were not eloquent or fancy, but they painted pictures in my mind. Parts of his life became mine, and we laughed together. Before I knew it, all the cookies were gone, more than two hours had passed, and my mom was pulling into the driveway to take me home.
I said goodbye to Richie and Virginia with a full stomach, a full tape-recorder, and a full heart. As I buckled my seat belt, my mom asked me, “So how’d it go?”
I paused for a second and then answered, “Ya’ know, mom, that was really cool! Richie can tell some of the best stories.” As we rode home together, I told her all about it.
Now many years later, I can’t recall all the details of those stories, and I am not sure what Mr. Dewey’s intention was for that particular assignment, but I do know one thing — I learned something very valuable. Everyone has a story, but that story only makes a difference if a person chooses to tell it and another person chooses to listen.
The habit of sitting around a warm fire at night, under a shady tree at noon time, or around a table during meals all while telling family stories has been the common experience for many generations that have come into our world. These children had moments bound up by listening to someone tell a story. They had their identity influenced by what anthropologists call oral traditions. They had part of the past come and become part of their present, so that it could help shape their future, and it was done by what some people call simple story telling. Nothing fancy, nothing scripted, nothing over the top. But in our modern world many children have faced quite a different sort of upbringing than all those before them. In this modern age of speakers, screens, audio books and sometimes even printed books, something has the potential of being lost. Something personal and powerful. If we are not careful, we can allow these great tools to replace people.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a great movie once in a while, just like the next guy, and I have a house full of books, but I was struck by an idea the other day. Have I let all these things become my surrogate story tellers?
All children love stories and it is not too hard to get them to listen to them, once they develop the habit, but the question that I asked myself was: am I taking the time, or as is most often, am I making the time to tell stories? As I try to prepare a feast of great thoughts for my children, made up of the best books, movies, and inspiring music, have I forgotten to leave room for home-grown soul food? Do we sing together as a family, even if my guitar playing doesn’t sound like the guy on YouTube? Do we tell stories about our past, our childhoods, our memories, even if they don’t seem that interesting?
There can be a lot of pressure on parents today, but this thought helped me. My kids don’t care so much about the glitter and lights, or the quality of my performance, as much as they do about my personal involvement. The greatest story, outside of the Bible, that my kids want to hear and need to hear is my own. That means from time to time, while washing dishes, or riding in the car, or while I’m putting them to bed, I can make the choice to start a story, a story from my life. Each time I take the plunge and put in the effort the experience is its own reward.
We all might be surprised how many stories our children want to hear once we start by telling one.
Featured image by Jerry Pinkney, from the book Tanya’s Reunion by Valerie Flournoy