Summer Sundays, my thoughts turn to baseball and the way my father would “listen” to a St. Louis Cardinals game on the radio while he napped. Our house was full of stillness those days. After a week of labor on the farm, we slipped easily into rest come Sunday. My mother read the newspaper and sometimes nodded off herself. I did what I did so much of the time as an only child; I lived inside the stories I made up in my head, or else in the ones someone else had invented and put into a book I could read. My life as an only child was a life of the imagination. Depending on my age at the time, I might be imagining myself loading caps into my trusty Winchester rifle, getting ready to defend myself against the “bad guys,” or I might be hitting a wiffle ball, pretending I was in Yankee Stadium, launching one into the short porch in right field. Being an only child responsible for my own entertainment led me to fall in love with stories.
Sometimes on Sundays, if my father felt restless, he’d say, “Let’s go for a drive.” We’d get into our car and drive the country roads, meandering, so it seemed to me, but sooner or later my father would say to my mother, “How about we drop in on. . .” and there he’d mention the name of someone and the next thing I’d know we’d be sitting on a front porch or in a kitchen or outside in lawn chairs, and I’d be listening to people tell stories. I was often the only child present because my parents were older parents when I was born, and the people we visited had usually sent their own children off into their adult lives. So I sat and I listened.
It was my great fortune to grow up among people who were natural storytellers. They knew how to arouse a listener’s curiosity, to take their time, to let a story grow gradually, increasing in tension or complication until I could barely tolerate a fraction of a second longer because I was so involved in the tale that I absolutely had to know its resolution. And then they knew to pause, to let a resolution hang there, just out of reach, increasing my expectation even more, before finally moving to the end. They knew how to make that ending resonate with the detail finally revealed, the question finally answered, the punch line delivered. They knew when a story was over and they didn’t go on a moment longer than necessary. They were my first “teachers” when it came to how to tell a story, and I was lucky to grow up where I did when I did during a time when people gathered simply for the purpose of one another’s company and the delight of a story well told.
These days, I worry that young writers have lost the feel of such a story. I worry that our contemporary fast-paced life has lessened the time we devote to the oral tradition. Maybe I’m just old and crotchety, but I wonder whether the speed of time has eroded our joy in the “once upon a time” mode of storytelling that we used to value.
I remember those Sundays when time seemed to stop. I remember the steady creak-creak of rocking chairs, the slow turn of oscillating fans, a breeze ruffling the leaves on an oak tree, someone saying, “Here’s one. There was this old boy up near Chauncey, who had a goat who could tell fortunes,” and there I’d be in the midst of a world made from wonder and mystery and colorful language and vivid detail. A goat who could tell fortunes, I’d think to myself. How could that be, and I’d settle in, listening to an expert storyteller line it all out for me. This was the great gift that my father and those like him—hardworking people on farms in a poor township in southeastern Illinois, some of them like my uncle who couldn’t read or write. But, Lord, could they tell a story. Each time I write I try to honor what they taught me.