Storytelling is an Art

star trail tree
The Magic of Storytelling is Universal

“The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”

~ Stephen King, Night Shift


In the Beginning
This past weekend I was reminded of things that happened to me a long, long time ago. When I was a kid (back when dinosaurs still freely roamed the planet), my family would visit my grandparents in Tennessee every summer.

They lived a hard and simple life on a small farm in the middle of the state, about 20 miles from the nearest town. The road in front of their farmhouse was unpaved and I vividly remember cars passing by – usually far too fast – kicking up clouds of red dust that took a long time to settle.

The house itself was built of corrugated tin over a spindly wood frame, with an unpainted porch across the front of the whole place that we kids were admonished not to play on, because it had fallen into disrepair on one side.

They had electrical service, but it was only for the few bare light bulbs that hung down from the center of the low ceilings of the three rooms inside. There was no television, and it was long before the advent of video games.

I seem to recall an old AM radio about the size of a small suitcase that shared one wall of the side room where two old featherbeds awaited visitors, but I don’t actually remember it ever working. I’m not sure there was even a plug for it.

As I discovered, the few times I was there in the winter, the house was somewhat heated by a small pile of coal burning in the front room fireplace … but it was the old wood stove my grandmother cooked upon in the kitchen all day that was the main heat source. There was no central furnace.

There was no running water or a bathroom, either. We did our business in the outhouse that sat at the end of a mowed path through tall weeds way out back (which was a scary trip at night), and my grandmother drew her water from a well that had been dug just outside the back door.

A Place of Magic
However, although the house looked like something I would later see in stories of the Appalachian poor, when I was small I thought it was a magical place.

All of my relatives would converge there when we arrived, and on Sunday after church my grandmother and aunts would cook up a proverbial storm, so there was always lots of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and pies … especially pies … for a young appetite.

In spite of the condition of their homestead, I clearly remember sitting with my cousins on the good side of the porch, after filling our bellies with comfort food, listening to the myriad sounds of the warm summer nights.

In enthralled wonder, we would eagerly await the beginning of the real delight of the evening … the moment when my grandfather, father and uncles would begin to swap stories.

Most of the men smoked. It was long before the Surgeon General admonished the country how dangerous it could be and some of the men rolled their own cigarettes while they sat there on the porch (my grandfather grew and dried his own tobacco).

I thought there was something fascinating and mysterious in watching my grandfather be the first to measure out that dried weed into a thin white rectangle of paper and roll it into a vague cylindrical shape … all with one hand. With that patriarchal ceremony complete, many of the other men followed suit.

Then, almost in unison, they either leaned backward with their chairs against the porch; or sat backwards in their chair, resting an arm heavily on the high back as they leaned forward to begin weaving their tales.

Oh, the Stories
The stories they told were usually about some strange event during a previous year’s planting season … plowing up a nest of hornets, or halting the plowing altogether to chase down a fox.

The younger uncles would brag about how fast their cars were, and they would all quickly segue into tales of hunting and fishing, and “the big one that got away” got bigger with every telling.

Then, sometime well after dark, when all you could see was the soft outline of faces lit by the glowing end of a cigarette, one of my uncles would remember a ghost story and try to frighten all the kids with it.

When he finished, each of the others would try, one-by-one, to top the previous yarn. The stories got more outlandish and more eerie as the night progressed.

On cloudless nights, while the bats would chase mosquitoes, the Milky Way seemed to dance and weave its way across the heavens in step with the stories, in a way I never saw so clearly in the city. It was almost surreal wandering up there in that inky sky.

The kids would gradually huddle together and, more than once, I saw a few of my uncles bunch a little tighter together, too.

The final ghost story of the night would usually scare me half to death, but thrill me at the same time. I can remember how my skin crawled as every strange nighttime noise in that unbroken country darkness seemed amplified into something sinister.

The older I get, the more I realize the debt I undoubtedly owe to my family. I think my love of good storytelling had its genesis there on that porch.

In fact, I’m sure of it.

Note: I’ve been invited to participate in “The Giving Season: Orion Township Public Library’s Author & Illustrator Fair.” The fair will take place at the library on Saturday, December 6, 2014, between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. and I’ll be there to sign my books.

If you can’t make it to the Author’s Fair next Saturday, you can find my books as eBooks or paperback on Amazon, or at Barnes & Noble. You’re also invited to visit my web site, BROKEN GLASS, or like my Book of Face page. You can also follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.

Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

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