I will always remember this one night - nigh on twenty-five years ago now - when I was settling down to read my youngest daughter a bedtime story. She didn't want any of the books we usually read. She was getting too old for them.
"Tell me a story," she said as she snuggled under my arm. "Make one up."
So to quiet her, I made up a silly little story about a tiny fairy named Polybewana (pronounced Polly-bee-wanna). This particular fairy had smaller than normal, malformed wings and couldn't fly. But that didn't stop Polybewana. She was a quite a determined little fairy...
That story lasted for years with new installments regularly (on the nights we had time for stories). For inspiration, I would glance around her room, looking for a "centerpiece" to that night's tale. The teddy bear kite on her wall was christened Yahoo Bear and became Polybewana's mode of transport across a terrible, dangerous ravine, and he gave her clues that took her to the next stage of her journey.
Before it was over, the little tale incorporated all of my daughter's pets, stuffed animals and favorite belongings, as I wove them into the evolving storyline - much to her delight! All I can say is I wish I had written it down. It was magical.
The story is gone now, but what never left us is the sense of delight that I share with my daughter in moments when we remember a snippet of the tale or even simply speak Polybewana's name. Many lessons were shared through those stories. Lessons about hope against all odds and perseverence no matter how hard the road.
As I look back over the life my daughter has lived, I realize she desperately needed those lessons to face everything that was ahead of her. In dark moments, I try to imagine Polybewana walking beside her through each tragedy she has had to face. Polybewana always knew what to do and never gave up.
My daughters are grown now and though they read the classics like Goodnight Moon to their children, somehow there doesn't seem to be the time for stories anymore. My older daughter shares favorite books from her childhood - like A Wrinkle in Time or Bridge to Terebithia - with her older son who likes to read. My other grandchildren, unfortunately, aren't big on reading...
But they love my stories.
In spite of my daughters' admonishments, they've heard all of Dean's scary stories more than twice, but their favorite stories - believe it or not - are my God-stories. I tell them anecdotes from my walk with God and share all the many miracles as they occur.
Sometimes they just want stories from when I was little or stories about Cajun country where I grew up and the colorful cast of characters that populated my childhood. None of us do much sitting by the fire these days, but interestingly, their favorite place for stories is on road trips. I can come up with stories about pretty much anything, and they just listen and ask questions. When the stories are over, they beg for more. They can never get enough.
That tells me there is a power to stories that transcends generations, cultures - and every other divide human beings may face.
As we slip into deepest winter, we are spending more of our time inside our houses, but how are we spending that time? Icy winter nights in front of the fire once were a time for storytelling (not TV and video games), but so often, working mothers and grandmothers are tired. We just want to turn off our brains. The idea of reading a book to our children seems exhausting - never mind trying to make up a story.
Try to make it a ritual. Rituals, I find, make things easier to remember, easier to do. Maybe it will become a Sunday Night Story tradition in your family and your children or grandchildren will look forward to it like some of us looked forward to the weekly Disney movie on Sunday evenings.
As grandmothers and mothers, we have a calling to pass on a legacy of storytelling to the generations that follow us. Even if storytelling is not your forte, do it anyway. Practice makes perfect. You'll get good at it. Besides, what children want more than anything is your attention, and they all love a good story. If there is anything my grandchildren will remember me for, it will be my storytelling.
Stories remain with us.
There is a reason Jesus taught in parables: our brains are designed to absorb instruction best through the format of stories. Psychologists, researchers and educators tell us you can shape the development of your children and grandchildren by the stories you tell them.
So won't you try and tell a story? A funny one, a magical one, a scary one under the covers with a flashlight. Any story will do. It is true.
Stories and Interviews
By Donna Gail Broussard
I recently interviewed John Walsh about his book The Art of Storytelling and Nancy Mellon, author of Storytelling & The Art of Imagination. In the next issue, as we are entering deepest winter, we will discuss their thoughts on the power of stories.
Email us your favorite story and we will publish it on a page called Second-Hand Stories for all the world to see (and share). The writing should be original (or at least an original write-up of a story you heard). Email your story to:
Feel free to borrow from the stories. Pick one you like and share it with your children and/or grandchildren! Practice on the dog first - and often! If you don't have a dog, plants like stories too. (Don't bother trying it on the cat. My cats never sit still for my stories.)
The Season of the Storyteller
THE STORIES WE WERE TOLD as children shaped us as certainly as the actual events we experienced. Take your mind back in time and remember your favorite stories. Were they read to you from books, overheard and retold, or fashioned fresh from someone's imagination?
My very favorite human being from my childhood was a young man who worked for my father. Dean was a practiced storyteller. Sitting around a fire, we would beg him to tell and retell his stories - especially the scary ones. My friends and I would squeal and shiver as he began a tale with: "Well, I remember this one night..."
Most of us remember best the very stories that kept us up nights. The man with the hook for a hand. The ghost in a wedding gown that appeared on deserted country roads. Dean and his wife Connie knew all of them.
One night when Dean was just beginning a round of stories, my parents tried to silence him: sssshhhh, she won't sleep tonight.
There was a woman I'd never met visiting that evening. She pulled me aside to talk and began brushing my hair as bedtime grew near. We talked about how I sometimes couldn't sleep alone, how I was afraid of the dark. I thought she was going to admonish me for listening to Dean's stories over and over.
Instead she said: "I love scary stories too." I waited. "But I know they're not real. It's fun getting scared during the story, but when it's over you can choose to stop being afraid. It's a choice like everything else. Try that tonight. Try choosing not to be afraid."
That interlude in my life and that gentle, wise woman were both unforgettable. I never saw her again but I remembered what she taught me. I didn't know if it was actually possible to choose to stop being afraid, but I was determined to try (mostly because I didn't want to disappoint her).
That was my first lesson in reframing something that seemed out of my control and seeing it instead as something fully within my control.
We are shaped not only by the stories other people tell us, but by the stories we tell ourselves.
My love of stories did not translate immediately to a love of reading. It took another memorable woman in my life to bridge that gap.
My mother and father were not big readers (except for the newspaper), but my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Kutchka in Ganado, Texas, believed all her students should become readers. (Current research confirms that being a reader is the highest predictor of academic success, so Mrs. Kutchka was ahead of her time.)
So she tricked us into it.
Every day at the end of class, she would read us a small selection of a book. That school year, she chose a thrilling Nancy Drew novel. Each day we went a little further into the story until we were all hooked. We'd all look forward to the next day's installment to find out what happened. We'd talk about the story at recess and speculate about who might do what. We all had different theories about how the story would end.
But when Mrs. Kutchka got halfway through the book, she just stopped. We were devastated. She couldn't leave us like that! We had to know how it ended.
"It's in the library," she would tell us when we begged for another installment. "Go check it out and find out how it ends."
That book stayed checked out for weeks before I finally got my hands on it and read it to the end. That's how I became a voracious reader. To this day, I love mysteries, who-dun-its and detective novels. Mrs. Kutchka was another woman who had a monumental impact on the course of my life. Being a reader makes you a better writer. My writing was what earned me a full scholarship to Harvard.
We never know who we might impact and how it may change the course of their lives. I never saw Mrs. Kutchka again when we left Ganado. She never knew how she changed my life with a battered little hardback Nancy Drew novel.