We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Joan Didion
The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Brandon Scnderson
Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here. Sue Monk Kidd
The most delightful surprise on earth is to suddenly recognize your own worth. Maxwell Maltz
My father loved stories. He was a grand storyteller, entertaining us, his children, with his own array of tales, true tales from his childhood, like the one when he and his four-year-old twin sister Josephine climbed into the family’s Model T, somehow made the car move and drove it down the grassy sloping hill of the Old House lawn and right into the wellhead. We squealed with delight when we heard such stories. He also told us stories as parables and these were more serious affairs. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me. Instead, when I got myself in trouble at school or with friends, he would sit down and look directly into my eyes and tell me something that had happened when he was a kid, some lesson that he had learned along the way. I always wanted to pull myself up and find the better version of the person inside after such an encounter.
Not only did stories pour out of him with a great generosity of spirit; he also held the space with that same generosity for the stories of others. He listened with what seemed like every ounce of himself to family and friends and strangers alike, with keen intelligence and empathy, genuinely curious and caring about the lives of those around him. I remember once, near the end of the school year when I was in ninth grade, after a memorial service in the Boston area for my Great Aunt Florence, how my father and I ended up on a bus heading back to Maine while my mother and little brother waited a day or two at my aunt and uncles for our broken-down car to be fixed. And I remember all sorts of people on that crowded bus, all sorts of stories floating through the stuffy air. And I remember my father saying to me — not in a snooping-into-other-people’s-business-way, but in an appreciative, even awestruck manner — how everyone, everyone has a story to tell, if you’ll just pay attention and listen. And that evening back in our house by the sea, I remember that I made shake-and-bake chicken for my father, and frozen peas and felt quite grown up and I’m sure that we shared some stories, and it has stayed with me all these years, how I, like my father, am a holder of stories.
And I’m realizing that the people who knew him, they are storytellers too. My father died two-and-a-half-years after that day on the bus, and, now, over forty years later, I am hearing stories about him, about his character, clear detailed vignettes, and I take each one of them into my storytelling heart and care for it as the most precious of gifts. These stories are filling in the missing pieces for me; they are bringing my story-loving father back to life. Every visit to Maine seems to hand me another storyfilled-gift, another picture in my mind of this father that I continue to get to know at deeper and deeper levels. On my April trip east, it was a story handed to me by my cousin Gard that I took to heart. It was a treat to see Gard, who lives in New Hampshire, but just happened to be the guest minister at the Swedenborgian church in Bath, Maine (my childhood church) the weekend that I was in town. At a round table in a tiny private room in a local restaurant, six dear friends and relatives swapped stories. And Gard, who was sitting across from me, in a sweet and gentle voice, said that he remembered my father as a teacher. And I always sit up a little straighter when someone starts to speak of my father. I always prepare myself for something special. I want to really soak it in.
And his story was a good one. Gard’s dad was my mother’s brother, and each Thanksgiving Eve when I was a child, the six of us, my mother and father and the four kids, piled into our old powder blue Chevy stationwagon and drove for what seemed a very long time to the suburbs of Boston, to Gard’s family’s house, a house with a long driveway on a huge wooded lot with a swimming pool and a tennis court and room after fancy room and lots of wood paneling and a big TV and, in the early sixties, it was exciting to be in a house with a big TV. And that’s where you would find us, Gard and his three brothers, all older than me, and my big brother and sister, and my little brother and I, and any other kids who happened to be visiting, all sprawled out on big square pillows, transfixed by that TV. Gard was old enough to remember this story, how my father peeked in, noticed the scene, and, moseyed into this wood-paneled kid-cousin sanctuary. In retrospect Gard thinks that my father might have been alarmed by all the advertising and the way that the kids might be impacted. So this was my father’s suggestion. “I have a game for us to play,” my father offered. And with the curious clan looking on, he twisted the volume nob all the way down to complete silence. “Let’s just watch the commercials without any sound and see what happens!” Gard remembers that it was great fun for the older kids, that the commercials became silly, hilarious, a ridiculous joke. And the game stuck with them, and the commercials lost their power to persuade. And the lesson that this story taught Gard, probably eight-years-old at the time, has stuck with him all these years. And this is a story that I had never heard before until the Sunday afternoon in Maine two months ago. And now it is in my treasure chest of father stories and and it is indeed a treasure.
And a more recent story is a treasure, too, the one my cousin on the other side of the family, my father’s twin’s daughter, told me a few weeks ago during my June visit to Maine. She met up with a well-known-in-the-area artist a month or so earlier, someone she had not seen since her mid-twenties, someone who had connections with our family, and was once intimately familiar with the work of our grandfather, the etcher, who, though dead since the 1920’s, often gets the attention in such meetings. And my cousin mentioned him, the artist, Ernest Haskell. And this creative and buoyant man, in his booming voice, bellowed out, “Oh yes! I remember him!” And soon, my cousin realized that he wasn’t paying much attention to the more famous Ernest Haskell at all, the one who usually dominates artistic conversations. He was remembering my father, the junior Ernest Haskell. “Didn’t he write for the paper?!? He was a great guy” he continued with enthusiasm. And my cousin, knowing now that he was talking about her Uncle Ernie, nodded, also with enthusiasm. And then there was the line, the one that he delivered with a bounty of appreciation, the one that I am receiving now with a bounty of appreciation. “He knew I was good before I knew I was good!”
And, oh my goodness! What could be better than that, to listen that closely, to pay attention to not only a person’s words, but to the essence beneath the words, to see a person that clearly, with that much holiness, to know that a person is good, not only at his or her art, but at their core, to maybe even know this before they know this. Don’t we all want to be on both ends of this interchange? Don’t we all want to be the holder of such attention and don’t we all also want to be the receiver? I am learning from my father. I am learning to be the witness of people’s stories. And I am learning to see the goodness that is always present beneath it all if we have the eyes to look for it.