The Storyteller

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As a species we’ve been telling stories for as long as there’s been the ability to pass them on.

They’re a way of making sense of the world, setting societal norms, connecting with the past and creating community (shout out to tnocs.com).

They come to us through many mediums; TV, cinema, books and school.

But the most personal is through our family members.

In my family, it was my grandmothers who took the mantle of storytellers.

On my mum’s side:

My grandma told us of the time her and her mother had seen in a ghost in their house – a figure in white had passed through her room in the night.

And when she mentioned it to her mother in the morning, she replied, “…so you saw her as well.”

That’s perhaps not surprising given that we were also informed that one of our ancestors from the 19th century was a witch. Though according to my grandma, she was a white witch, so her potions were intended to heal not harm.

On my dad’s side:

My nana was a wealth of tales stretching from her childhood through to the present.

The one that was retold most often was how almost 9 months pregnant and living on a farm miles from anywhere in the depths of winter with snow all around.

She decided she’d had enough being stuck in the house and wanted a trip to the nearest town to go to the cinema.

There was no public transport and the roads were blocked by the snow anyway so her and my grandad walked there and back through the fields.

She was a tiny lady of 5-foot.

But the snow and imminent possibility of a baby arriving wasn’t going to get in the way of her love of going to the movies.

That farm loomed large in her tales. It was the early 1950s, and its remoteness was matched by its lack of modern facilities such as an indoor toilet.

It was quite common that housing for the working classes built in the 19th and early 20th century would have the ‘feature’ of a toilet separate from the house, usually in a small brick shelter out in the garden or yard.

Luckily for me, by the time I came along in the 70s this was a thing of the past and I didn’t have to endure long cold winters passing water in the form of icicles.

My nana decided at one point that it wasn’t the life for her.

She took my dad who was a baby at the time, left my grandad, and headed back to civilisation and her mother.

…Who gave her a stern talking to: with words to the effect that she’d made her bed, so best get back to it. Suitably chastened, she headed back to the farm from which they soon decided to move away, and onto somewhere not quite so primitive.

Another favourite was that they had a motorbike and sidecar in those days.

They’d gone to collect a sack of coal which had to be transported back home in the sidecar, squeezed in with my nana and a baby.

They spent the whole journey home having coal dust blown into their faces. My grandad completely oblivious to this, until they got back. Stepping out of the sidecar, he saw that they were now sporting a look I’ll politely define as problematic.

The stories provided entertainment and a way of connecting with family history.

Seeing into the past at their character, and how they had lived before we came along. Our very own source of social history.

They also helped connect with wider history.

My grandma was in the Land Army during WW2.

With many agricultural workers away fighting in the war, they were replaced by women.

They signed to work whatever jobs were required to work the land, and sustain food production.

My nana meanwhile was still a child as the war started and living in central Newcastle. At risk from German bombing raids, she was one of 30,000 children evacuated from Newcastle to the country.

She found herself in rural Cumbria, but the family she was billeted with weren’t particularly welcoming (a common experience by all accounts.) So she decided to go back to the city to take her chances against the Luftwaffe.

My grandad was also growing up in Newcastle during the war.

He caught diphtheria and was sent to a sanitorium where he wasn’t allowed any direct contact with the outside world.

His family could look in on him through the window, but that was it.

He was in a ward filled with boys in the same situation.

During air raids, they would have to hide under their beds.

Having gotten over diphtheria, he had a narrow escape when caught outside in an air raid. A bomb exploded in front of him with the force of the blast lifting him off his feet and throwing him against a wall. He was so matter of fact about it, just picked himself up and carried on.

But had the bomb landed a few feet closer? That would have been it for him – and future generations.

A few years ago he went into the local primary school to give the children a first hand account of his experiences. The kids reacted as though he were some sort of indestructible superhero.

Whereas to him and that generation it was part of life that the possibility of death was everywhere and you just got on with it.

Its one thing to read accounts in a textbook.

But when you have someone that you know and can relate to that,

it really puts it into perspective, and helps understand the personal impact.

There’s a sadness, in that 2022 marked the point where the stories came to an end.

My grandma passed away in 2005 while my nana began to develop Alzheimer’s in the early 2010s. For such an unassuming person, she had a way with recounting her memories that had us hanging on her words and never tired of hearing them again.

As new people joined the family, it gave her the chance to recount the greatest hits over again. But there were always new ones to draw from a seemingly bottomless well.

There’s regret that just as my daughter was reaching an age where she could take in and enjoy them.

My nana’s Alzheimer’s meant she never got to hear them.

Her death did bring an unexpected late bonus, as my grandad in his early 90s took up the role of storyteller.

He was always great with children. He was still on his hands and knees on the floor playing with great-grandchildren into his 90s. But having largely deferred to my nana in this role, he began to treat us to his own inventory of memories.

Every time we saw him, there would be some we’d heard before from my nana. But there was more new material. Including recounting his first job delivering milk as a teenager in the 1940s with Paddy the horse pulling the milkcart.

My grandad is still with us at 96. But he had a fall last year which caused a head injury, and shortly after that, a stroke. His speech is now impaired – meaning the stories have come to a stop.

Its a constant source of amazement to consider how fast human ingenuity has moved along in the last century.

In the world my grandparents grew up in, horses were still a common sight on city streets and indoor plumbing and even electricity weren’t taken for granted.

To take this even further in considering the passing of stories of one generation to the next, here’s a fact that astounded me:

The oldest person alive at the time of writing is Lucille Randon born in 1904 in France.

As a child she could conceivably have listened to the stories of someone born in the 1820s.

Napoleon wasn’t long dead, the USA was still in its infancy with James Monroe as president, and the first photograph hadn’t even been taken. Time contracts and expands.

The 1820s is a distant age going back many generations. But at the same time – its incredible to realise that life span means for the very oldest it can be reached through only one connection.

Our daughter loves hearing tales from mine and Mrs Js past as well as her as a baby /toddler that she can’t remember. She hasn’t yet reached the awkward teenage years of denying that she might ever have done anything embarrassing or childish…

…like that time just as I was about to leave for work one morning and was saying goodbye with her on my knee. She chose that moment to do a poo so large and explosive that it couldn’t be contained by her nappy (diaper) and I found myself wearing it.

(Seemed like the right choice, here.)

Mark that one down as another entry in the big book of things no one tells you could happen as a parent:

“Sorry I’m late for work boss.

But the baby crapped on me and I needed to scrub myself clean and have a full change of clothes to get rid of the smell.”

dad of the decade jj live at leeds

So while there is the sadness at the ending of an era, there’s always those memories and the joy of passing them and our own stories down to another generation.

As a youngster there’s a permanence to life: its difficult to comprehend that those people nearest to you won’t always be there. The stories that my grandparents told started off as something seemingly trivial, a form of entertainment. Getting older, they become something more, a way of holding onto people as they pass on.

Its now our job to give our daughter that sense of belonging, and an understanding of who we are now, and the people we were before she came along.

Anyone else have family member(s) that captivate the rest of the family with their stories or are you the one that has the role?


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JJ Live At Leeds

From across the ocean, a middle aged man, a man without a plan, a man full of memories, a man like JJ.

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thegue
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January 11, 2023 10:16 am

What a gorgeous story, and as a storyteller I have too many options I’d love to share.

I love telling stories, much to my wife’s chagrin, but others are amused by it. Back in 1994, I was coaching the girls’ junior varsity softball team at the high school where I taught, and one of the girls mentioned that I had a story for everything. I asked Stitch (her nickname) to test me, and she said, “toothbrush”.

I had a story!

My grandfather was the fire chief in his town, and regularly woke up around 4 am to head off to the station. One morning, he noticed that his toothbrush was wet. He considered it, shrugged, then moved on. This happened for a week or two, when he finally decided to wake up thirty minutes earlier to see if he determine what was going on…and there, at the base of the steps, where my aunt and uncle (both under the age of 6), brushing their dog’s teeth with my grandfather’s toothbrush.

I am very thankful I have a family that loves telling stories, but I’m sad so many stories have died with the older generations…

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 11, 2023 10:22 am

Great write-up, JJ. Growing up, I heard so many stories from the people around me, whether about my own early childhood (my parent’s doctor apparently told them that my brother and I would likely never learn to read or write!) or about my grandfather’s experience on a naval warship as Japanese kamikaze planes zoomed menacingly overhead.

Appropriately, I just recently got back from Japan, not least so we could visit my wife’s grandmother, who had previously told me stories about being a young girl in Tokyo during the fire bombings of WW2. She was sent away to safe ground in remote farmlands, and yet could still remember the starvation she had faced.

Sadly, her dementia has progressed to the point where she usually doesn’t recall having ever met me (although she is still quite warm, so maybe she’s familiar at an unconscious level), and sometimes speaks as if her husband, dead for decades, is coming home soon and she needs to cook for him. Regardless, it was great to be able to visit her and reconnect.

Even if the story won’t be remembered by her, we’ll pass it on.

Virgindog
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January 11, 2023 10:28 am

This is really touching, JJ. Nicely done.

I was pretty young when my grandfather died and he had lost a lung and part of his esophagus to cancer so I never heard his real voice, only the high pitched squeak he was left with. I don’t remember that he told stories but the rest of the family talked about him.

He worked in the lumber camps as a child. He lied about his age to go fight in WWI, probably more to get away from the abuse of the lice-infested lumberjacks in the all male camps than from any sense of patriotism.

Part of his job in the camps was to walk the logs as they floated down river to the mills, making sure the logs didn’t jam. It’s dangerous work and was usually given to the boys and unmarried men who wouldn’t leave widows and children.

I only knew him as a pleasant, loving old man but he wasn’t that old. He died at 62, younger than I am now, but it’s hard to imagine him young and spry, walking the logs.

They don’t send logs down the river anymore, sending them by truck instead, so it’s easy to romanticize the very dangerous job of the log drivers. Still, I love this cartoon of the Log Driver’s Waltz. Anyone who can walk the logs must be light on their feet.

https://youtu.be/upsZZ2s3xv8

Pauly Steyreen
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January 11, 2023 10:53 am
Reply to  Virgindog

This cartoon and song are awesome! I see I went into the wrong field if I want to please girls completely.

Virgindog
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January 11, 2023 11:06 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

They still have log rolling competitions. You could go pro!

Pauly Steyreen
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January 11, 2023 11:21 am
Reply to  Virgindog

No one has ever accused me of being “light on my feet.” I’d be a wet corpse before one week passed.

thegue
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January 11, 2023 12:50 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I watched one of them…and then realized how DANGEROUS a log driver’s life was. One slip…

Shivers down my spine, I had to turn it off.

cappiethedog
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January 12, 2023 12:37 am
Reply to  Virgindog

It reminds me of The Decemberists scoring Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. Good stuff.

Pauly Steyreen
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January 11, 2023 11:19 am

Those are some great stories, JJ. Your grandparents experienced the blitz in first person. Stiff upper lip and all that, but they’re like superheroes in my book too!

Both of my grandfathers were in the same tank battalion in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. They hadn’t known each other previously, and they didn’t keep in touch afterwards. They could not know their as-yet unborn offspring would go on to marry. It was a cool surprise when they refound each other at my parents’ wedding.

My grandfather on my mom’s side used to tell stories from those days. He asked my grandmother, who he was courting at the time, to marry him after he enlisted but before he left for Europe. She steadfastly refused. She didn’t want to take the chance to be such a young widow. They married pretty soon after he got back though.

My grandfather would often recount how he was saved on the battlefield, that he accepted Jesus into his heart, threw himself on his knees and wept in the midst of danger. It was a defining moment in his life. He was a proud Gideon and took a lot of pride in sharing his story with others and converting them to his own beliefs, which gave him a great deal of comfort. (I have complicated feelings about proselytizing like this now that I’m an adult, but my grandfather did not. He was sure he was helping people, and he did it with a warm-hearted conviction in his principles.)

However this saved on the battlefield moment also led to a huge rift between him and his family — parents and siblings. They were part of the Old Fashioned Missionary Baptist Church, so they believed that you could only be saved at a “moaner’s bench.” So his salvation on the battlefield didn’t count. He needed to do it “the right way” or he couldn’t be part of the church. My grandfather refused. Consequently, my grandfather and one older brother of his left the church and joined an new forming church, where they were charter members, and remained until they died. That rift in the family never fully healed.

My one great uncle I saw all the time (they went on to own a farm together, a pair of brothers married to a pair of sisters, so they lived next door). The other great aunts and uncles I rarely saw though they all lived in the same county or an adjacent county.

The consequences of our ancestors’ history reverberates around us. Do we appreciate how our own choices are going to reverberate for future generations? 🤔

mt58
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January 11, 2023 12:17 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

> Do we appreciate how our own choices are going to reverberate for future generations?

I waffle on this. Sometimes I’m more optimistic about it, but here’s my answer today:

I’d say less than we ever have. I feel like we’re living in our own moments more than ever before. If not selfish: it’s at the least ‘unmindful.’

I know many young people who are steadfastly choosing not to have a family. It kind of makes me sad.

Pauly Steyreen
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January 11, 2023 12:34 pm
Reply to  mt58

I agree, and I have a good tough look in the mirror when I realize this. I think “unmindful” is the apt word here. Possibly even “careless.” But maybe I’m just in a pessimistic mindset with the gloomy weather we’ve had lately.

My grandfather was very loving and kind, but he moved through life with intention borne from his religious conviction. I don’t share his religion — not anymore at least — but I hold on to what a decent and caring man he was, not just to me, but to everyone around. I feel kind of squeamish about the converting. But then I think, how much were the people he converted motivated by the theology or the fate of their souls vs the enthusiasm of a kind man who cared about them? So there’s that: the choices you make have reverberation, but maybe not as much as the person you are.

I need to ponder this some more… 🤔

LinkCrawford
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January 19, 2023 6:40 am
Reply to  mt58

Unmindful. Oof. Your words have truth, mt.

mt58
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January 11, 2023 2:19 pm

> I’m fortunate to have lived where I do at a time where that conflict and trauma have been at a distance.

My father was the first generation born in the US. He was in the army, fought in WWII, was briefly tasked with learning Russian psychology, and was present to observe the proceedings at the Nuremburg trials.

All before his 23rd birthday.

So, yes, JJ, I’m with you; we’re fortunate that many of us have never known such times. When I ask myself if I’d have what it would take to survive, I want to say, “of course,” but I remember the fact that I’ve never been tested.

Side note: the hosting provider that I chose for this site is based out of Ukraine. Whenever there’s a server-side issue and I have to speak to them, I marvel at their professionalism, fortitude, and strength amongst terrible adversity. I can only imagine what their storytelling will be like.

They are to be admired. Slava Ukraini.

lovethisconcept
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January 11, 2023 2:05 pm

In my family, I had one grandmother who taught me to love reading by reading to me endlessly. But I don’t recall her ever telling me one story about her own life. I will always appreciate the gift that she gave me, and I have many memories of her, but I know next to nothing of her early life. She is in my stories, but I don’t have any of hers. That makes me kind of sad.

The other grandmother told stories. From her young days in Ohio, her young married life in coal country Kentucky and subsequent hard times and divorce. Most of her stories were about the time after she had remarried and her children were all young.

Now I am the storyteller in the family. I have passed down many of the family stories to children who have no recollection of the people in them. But they know something of their heritage, from coal mine strikes and the violence surrounding them to silly stories about adventures with animals. From bootleggers to tent revivals. I don’t really know if they are interested in the stories, or if they just love me. Either way, it makes me happy to tell them.

Edith G
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January 11, 2023 2:18 pm

Thank you for sharing those stories JJ, I really enjoyed reading. The storytelling in the families is a tradition that sadly get lost along the way if there aren’t members willing to write them up, at least.

dutchg8r
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January 11, 2023 9:20 pm

Aww, I loved this JJ! My dad was 1 of 6, so I always loved listening to him and my aunts and uncles tell stories of them growing up. Grandma was the best though, because she was so chill like me, nothing ever phased her, so her retellings were the best.

My grandma’s Aunt and Uncle were still alive when I was a wee gal. The aunt and uncle (siblings – neither one got married) lived on a farm outside Boston. My dad and his siblings would go there in summers to help out in the peach orchard. Honestly, you go to Eastern Massachusetts now and it seems inconceivable there were such large farms and orchards everywhere. The land got sold off to a developer of course for a subdivision. But at least the developers used my great-great aunt and uncle’s names for the roads. Those were the kinds of tales I loved to hear about, because it truly seemed like an ancient, far away time.

I love that people are making such a concerted effort to speak more with WWII vets and Korean War vets nowadays to get these verbal tales of their experiences. I’m so grateful people care that much, because the stories are truly invaluable. My mom was never able to get her dad to talk much about WWII, so she never pressed him on it. I had an assignment in 6th grade I think to interview a war vet, and he was willing to talk with me about his experience on tape recorder. How he was in Okinawa, got a Purple Heart, and how his commander let his unit have free reign in the Japanese weapons storehouse after Japan finally surrendered. I distinctly remember him saying he wanted nothing to do with any of the Japanese weapons, and was talked into a single handgun. And he went into his closet, brought out the gun in its case, and the Purple Heart medal to show me, and was like, ‘gosh, I haven’t looked at these in ages’.

That audiotape became one of my mom’s most cherished possessions.

My British friend had a grandmother who was a single mother in her 20s with a young toddler (my friend’s dad) living in London during WWII. My friend called her “War Granny” because she always talked about living through the war, and she was a bit embarrassed at first to introduce me to her. I sat and chatted with her grandma for hours listening to her tales and asking her questions. Absolutely fascinating woman and I was happy to hear whatever War Granny wanted to share.

Family lore is precious, and priceless. Everyone should treasure them.

Last edited 15 days ago by dutchg8r
cappiethedog
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January 12, 2023 12:09 am

I watch a lot of Sky News. First-hand stories about life during wartime(and the circumstances surrounding it) from past conflicts has become part of my miscellaneous reading.

Very timely article.

I wish your grandfather many more years.

Thank you, JJ Live At Leeds.

LinkCrawford
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January 19, 2023 7:02 am

How did I miss this entry, JJ? I love this! As a kid, during family gatherings there was nothing that I loved more than sitting in the corner and listening to the adults talk to each other. There was comfort in that. I cherish those old memories of theirs.

One of the reasons that I have always appreciated rural/farm life was because of my mom’s (not always pleasant) stories of her life on a dairy farm. It made me wish I grew up with her.

I’ll share a funny story of how the good old days weren’t always so good. My mother recounted a story of her dad taking her to the dentist to get a cavity filled. This would be the early 1950s. Before beginning the work the dentist yelled out to her father in the lobby asking,
“Are we using novocaine for Karen’s filling?”
“How much does it add to the cost?” he answered.
“One dollar.”
“No way!”

Ouch! Over the years I’ve always had a natural desire to fill in my family tree. That is so much easier now online…we are truly in the golden age of genealogy. But now I think I’ve come to realize the value of the stories and histories more than just the names and relationships on the tree.

Thanks the stories, JJ.

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