Janet Sheridan: The importance of stories
Stories enrich our lives. We tell them, listen to them, read them, repeat them, write them, watch them on TV, enjoy them in theaters. Stories teach us, entertain us, make us laugh, ease our social situations, and cement our friendships.
Jokes are short stories; poems are cadenced stories. Stories set to music are called songs; stories mourners share about lost loved ones are called comfort; and stories Jesus told are called parables.
My siblings and I grew up listening to elderly relatives tell stories during family reunions celebrated in city parks, over dinner tables filled with holiday food, and around bonfires under the near-glow of stars. We heard stories while being held on welcoming laps in crowded cars and on front porches.
Now that we are old, we tell the stories.
When two or more of us get together, sooner or later, someone says, “Remember when…” and storytelling begins. We lean in, listen, nod our heads, chuckle, and sometimes quibble over details. The star of a story is allowed to tell it without interruption, and we grant one another embellishment rights: a good story can always be improved.
A few years ago, we visited our parents’ burial site where we stood together on gentle grass under a fresh sky and told stories of their living and their dying. We remembered the way Dad would start a yarn, stop abruptly, cast a suspicious look at his listener, and ask, “Say, have I told you this one before?” Then, without pause, “Well, even if I did, it’s good enough to hear again.”
We talked about Mom, who read stories and poems aloud to us: “Horton Hatches the Egg,” “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” “Little House on the Prairie.” We remembered how she turned us into readers by handing us the perfect book at the perfect age and saying, “I think you’re ready to read this book. You’ll love it.” She gave “Little Women” to me when I was in fifth grade. I still have it; and it still falls open to my favorite parts.
Though I loved stories, I didn’t appreciate every storyteller’s style. As a teen, l fretted when my elderly relatives rambled through a story without getting anywhere: “Well, there we were, me and ole Rupert — you remember Rupert. He’s your Aunt Agnes’s second husband, the one with crazy eye so you never knew where he was looking — Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he married Agnes; he never really got a good look at her. Anyway, we were fishing in the drain ditch for catfish, and a wind come up. You couldn’t call it a nor’easter, like the wind that toppled Hen’s barn and killed his prize pig that time, but it was a stiff one…”
Lately, I’ve noticed wild-eyed looks on the faces of my young kin when I wind my way through and around a story with no apparent goal.
“When I was 10, Great Aunt May, who made inedible mincemeat pies everyone pretended to like, took me to town instead of my brother Bob, her first choice. He couldn’t go because he was hoeing Beckstrom’s sugar beets for pay and spending every dime he earned on grape sodas and Twinkies. I swear, by summer’s end, he looked purple.
My aunt had an appointment with old Dr. Hughes, whose office was in a chicken coop he’d remodeled himself to spite his sworn enemy, the mayor, who had two buck teeth, one of them gold. Everyone called him Bucky except for a few of the more creative types, who called him Goldy. On the way to town, Aunt May told me if she grew faint driving home, I’d have to take over the wheel. Yikes! I had no idea how to take over a wheel, and I couldn’t imagine a woman feeling faint who’d hacked a rattlesnake to pieces with a garden hoe…
You see, it’s a genetic thing.