Friday, July 17, 2009
Summertime, Teatime, Storytime
The heat has arrived and spread its wide mantle of HOT on every outdoor surface. Yesterday we swam and snacked in the afternoon, finding ourselves sapped of all energy throughout the rest of the day and evening, sleeping long and deep through to the next morn as the exertion took its toll. Today we rest indoors whilst the heat passes over, entertaining notions of a twilight supper and nighttime swim. Each season offers a delicious delight we eagerly anticipate throughout the year. The first snowfall causes celebration equal to the first late night swim and marshmallow roast. The time for daily swimming has arrived a bit late this year, but we welcome it warmly, nonetheless.
Our early summertime delight of spending afternoons out in the gardens has given way to siestas and reading nooks kept cool by the aid of shade and machinery most welcome. Late night playtimes curtail early morning tasks to only those most necessary (like watering the gardens and tending the animals) as we have traded “early to rise” for “late we must play.” Each summer we make this trade and live richer for the bargain.
Not surprisingly, our schoolwork hours continue without hiccup, and actually yield a greater pace than that of the early summer days when we ran afield without thought to regular bookishness. Music practice and mathematical tasks find ample space in a warm afternoon laced with greater access to lazy hours spent in cool pursuit with book in hand or journal for record of just this very life we live. Likewise, our storytelling from the family tree keeps pace with fairytales in books fed upon freely in this season of free time found in a hot summer’s afternoon pocket.
Each morning, regardless of the season, we gather round the teapot after chores have been tended and tummies growl for attention. Not given over to the tradition of big country breakfasts, each girl (or guy) finds a plateful or bowlful to suit their tastes. One may choose oatmeal topped with warm just-picked berries, while another crafts a half-moon omelet filled with cheese and sprouts nestled on a plateful of fresh and crunchy garden treats (that one would be me). The toaster pops, the teakettle bubbles, and the fridge swings to and fro in this mid-morning dance toward storytelling time.
The relaxed cadence of our life shines brightly around the tea table. Favorite cups find matching saucers, heaped plates or dainty nibbles serve to satisfy, and the madcap array of overstuffed furnishings beckon for one to sit and sip and share from the heart. Some days we share tears and teary paths that we have been called to; other times the hilarity of a morning’s foible at chores entertains one and all – easily found around this cottage filled with chickens, cats, kids, and the occasional skunk (whom we fear likes us enough to endure the rodent repeller recently introduced into his nesting spot). The reading of Scripture, the telling of a devotional thought, and the muffling of laughter or tears in a hug most sincere grace our daily gathering for tea. Quite often the conversation sparks a memory and the family tree blossoms with something to tell.
I come from a long line of storytellers. Having had the joy of knowing many of my great-grandparents, coupled with the gift of a writer’s ear and storage bank discovered very early on (yes, I truly do remember residing in a crib and being coaxed to use a potty, among other early memories most do not recall), I sat enraptured as elders shared the family treasure with me, generally the youngest in attendance. Without knowing it, I became one of the guardians of the family story rife with adventure, determination, disaster, and triumph all rolled into the memories of those who knew or did or remembered those who knew or did or remembered.
My Great-Grandma Ruth (affectionately known a “Mammy” to me) held a vault of memories that she shared freely as she poured out the tea. We took tea with breakfast, paused for tea midday, and always, ALWAYS had a cuppa tea and a little something before turning in for the night . . . at midnight. (I come by my night-owl roots honestly, you see.) A nibble of cheddar, a spiced cookie, and Lipton’s tea out of a china teacup and saucer always got the conversation flowing. I nibbled or sipped ever so quietly, eagerly anticipating the beginning of the stories . . .
Stories of Uncle Yancy, who lost his nose while battling a bear, always sent shivers down my spine; and yet the giggles would erupt as Mammy would go on to tell how that poor man wrestled more with that false nose than he ever did with that shaggy bear. The doctor fashioned a false nose with a sort of modified eye-glass frame that spread ‘cross his cheeks. She then rifled in the top drawer of the bureau in the game room pulling out a sepia-toned photo clearly showing that phony nose and the brave pioneer grimacing at the camera.
“Why,” she laughed till she gasped for air, “He looked a sight in that thing! He struggled with it, tugging and adjusting for vanity’s sake, generally tossing it aside despite the odd looks. He was something . . .” she would say as her voice trailed off with a choke of emotion and pride.
I would flop back in my chair positively spellbound at the tale of this man’s bravery on multiple fronts. I chafed at wearing glasses and found the taunting miserable – how much worse to be sporting that nose? *Sigh* I would smile with an inner strength that comes from knowing your family has seen worse and survived to triumph.
Later, when I rushed to share this fantastic tale at school I reaped more jeers than cheers from the skeptical ones and found that the lack of the picture proof left me with little other than the knowledge that I knew it to be true. And so I stored up the tales but shared them with few; unlike Uncle Yancy I chose to avoid the public scrutiny.
Throughout the years I continued to sit at the feet of the storytellers in my family on both sides and absorb the beauty of our unique history. I heard the tales over and over again, never tiring of the details. Other family members would interrupt and add a new tidbit, and on occasion the bold few would contradict a memory, but generally I found the tales to pass from generation to generation without much change.
Sadly, the family has splintered and the tale tellers have passed away. I once overheard a great uncle snort in disdain at the “silly nonsense” about life on the prairie. He had moved away from the old-fashioned to the modern and had no time to look back. Even though I had enjoyed far fewer years of the tale telling, I knew them to be something special, if only to me. And so I carried as many as I could. Some became material for fictional stories that would go on to win acclaim for originality or ingenuity, while others earned tears of laughter or sorrow, but always I kept the veracity of the tales hidden. I spun the stories as fiction and enjoyed popularity without need to defend.
One day I tired of the world of fiction and began to reweave the true names and places in my family’s journey. Across oceans I met those who had been left behind in the “Old Country.” Through old letters and weighty tomes of historical compilations I learned the names of places that I had/would visit. Every time I visited my Grandpa Rudy (Mammy’s son) he would heed the pleading and pile us all in the Travel-all for a trip off the beaten path to places like Possum Trot and Moskee and all sorts of other magical little spots with little left standing save a rotting blacksmith’s shed, wherein I dug around and found lingering souvenirs of my Great-Grandpa Hans’ workmanship to treasure. Though my Grandpa Rudy laughed aloud with ribbing, wondering why I needed to grab garbage for souvenirs, I knew underneath that rough exterior his heart swelled with pride that I cared to remember that his father swung a hammer in a forge and kept an industry’s horsepower in shoes during the heyday of the Homestake mine in The Black Hills of South Dakota, that my other Great-Grandpa earned his nicknames “Bozy” for being the best bulldozer driver in The Hills, and that “Choppy” got his title from chopping trees with famous strength. Threads of this memory and that one fell freely in conversation as my Grandfather chauffeured this scrawny kid through the forests of his childhood.
These days all those storytellers have “Passed Over” as the family saying goes. I cannot clarify this detail or that, I can merely pass along what I know from years of absorbing teatime chatter or ramblings on a pathway through the old family lands lost long ago for lack of a successful homestead venture. As a storyteller, I lovingly remember the effort of those attempting to make a go of the pioneer dreams through nourishing the adventurous spirit that still courses through the veins of this limb of that family tree. Those self-same lands lay barren and empty to this day, but an arrowhead found or a rattler spotted fuels the pride I feel standing and staring at an expanse that once housed a soddy fashioned by the very hands of my Great-Grandfather. Herein he grasped the American dream with both Norwegian-born hands, managing to find time to woo and marry my “Mammy” and ensure that she would have stories to pass down to children taking tea with her . . . and grandchildren . . . and great grand children . . . and even have the opportunity to know she had great-great grandchildren (my boys) who arrived 5-1/2 months before she passed over into the presence of our Lord. She left the storytelling to those who saw fit to gather the stories she shared . . . she left a great legacy to me.
I think of my Mammy often as I sit down to tea with my children all around. I share the stories long held in the safety of my heart and it feels good. Though I once dreamed of being an author of wide acclaim, I have found that the telling of my stories to the next generation – my sweet children – will ensure that my family will not be forgotten, nor will we forget the precious gift of a few moments spent together over a relaxing beverage sipped within this bond we call family. Though my childhood erupted, sending fragments of family far and away, I have safeguarded those baskets of debris gathered in the aftermath of the storm, ensuring that my children would not be cheated of a family tree full of characters of all sorts and sizes. The legacy rests safely here at Wisteria Cottage.
Recently the girls and I sat chatting over tea about this memory and that, whiling away the time in joyful recollection. The morning faded and afternoon took its place.
I glanced at the clock and noted the time, remarking,
“I think we need to get going and doing, don’t you?”
To which Lydia sagely replied,
“We are doing something – we’re talking and that’s important.”
I think I have found the next storyteller.