Storytelling Breathes Life into the Past
The oral story allows for growth and freshness every time it is told. Sadly, the oral tradition does gradually wane. The written story puts an experience in concrete that carries the potential to live as long as books are read or heard. I believe I am keeping my family alive through the writing of their stories and mine.
Our life is a series of moments. They follow one after another in endless succession. A series of moments make an experience. It is fair to say that most moments are hardly discernable and seldom processed. Brief experiences only provide a small effect on our life and are then filed in our subconscious and eventually forgotten. However, important transformational experiences impact our life in one way or another in terms of who we are as a person. As Sue Monk Kidd wrote in the Secret Life of Bees, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” The sum of our experiences determines who we are.
We begin to understand why we act the way we act when we retrace our life to identify transformational moments and how we responded to them. It is like walking backward with a personal characteristic in hand trying to find the place or moment where we picked it up. Transitional moments can be negative experiences such as the premature loss of a parent that drove us into a responsibility for our family that we certainly didn’t want or expect. Or, on the positive side, they can be the special attention given by a teacher that birthed our positive self-concept. Every moment carries the potential for a positive or negative impact upon life, but only a few really make dramatic and immediate changes. Most of my writing focuses on such transitions whether serious or humorous.
The Birth of the Taradiddle
My father started the story-telling tradition for our clan. He actually gave birth to what I would call a taradiddle, even though he never used the term. Most of his narratives came straight out of the humorous realities from his life. He replayed them time and again whenever he had a willing audience. And like most stories, over time, Dad’s stories grew. From childhood, Dad amazed us with his recollection of playing against the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1930’s in Yarmouth, Iowa. I never thought to question Dad’s thrill of a lifetime; after all if he said it, it must be the truth. People began to question the veracity of his story and that ticked me off. So, I set out to document his claim. I am still looking, but I have found enough circumstantial evidence to keep his recollection leaning strongly to truth rather than fiction.
The Globetrotter’s began their march to fame in Chicago in 1926 when Abe Saperstein formed a team of black basketball stars named the “Savoy Big Five.” My dad was nine years old at the time. The first team included people like Bill “Ham” Watson and Walter “Toots” Wright. The team name was changed to the Harlem New York Globetrotters and began touring to seek worthy opponents. They arrived in a Model “T” Ford in Hinckley, Illinois, for their debut game in 1927 in front of 300 fans. The total game payout was $75. From there they toured Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa into the 1930’s and gained more and more credibility and fame. They played their 1,000th game in 1934, meaning they played approximately 120 games a year in a variety of cities and small towns in the mid-west. It is a strong possibility that one of those small towns was Yarmouth, and if so, Dad would have been at the front of the line to play. He would have been seventeen and in the prime of his high school basketball career. In May of 2012 I asked Uncle Major, my dad’s brother, (age 95) if he had any recollection of the Globetrotters in Yarmouth. And, without blinking he said, “Yeah, I remember them smoking cigarettes and eating candy bars in our school lunchroom as they waited for the game.” Why all those weird details unless it really registered in his vivid memory.
My dad stuck with that story until one year before his death when he kicked it up a notch and began to say, “You know the Globetrotters tried to get me to go on the road with them.” He lost me there…but the first edition still intrigues me and causes me to wonder. Dad wasn’t interested at that point in telling his history, he focused on the “story.” How do you separate the truth from the fiction as a biographical writer? You cannot do that completely! You can only demythologize your memories to the limit of your desire to keep your story honest. Dad was a great storyteller, but he was a greater man.
My Dad Was One of the Best
My father had a real sharp eye for the unusual. He could be cultivating on a tractor and spot a small arrowhead between the cornrows that some Native American had lost while hunting years and years ago. He would walk across the lawn and suddenly stop to reach down and pick a four-leaf clover that he always saved for my mom. He could see a morel mushroom while others saw only grass and dead leaves. I asked him how he did those things and he said something profound, “Look for something that isn’t like everything else. Look for what shouldn’t be there.” I would learn later that with a little adaptation that insight would help my fictional writing. The key to writing is the ability and willingness to see what isn’t or shouldn’t be there.
Dad was a hardcore romantic. He loved to sing to my mother. One song always caught my attention–“Can I Canoe You Down the River?” Here are full lyrics.
“Can I canoe you up the river
Can I canoe you up the stream
Can I canoe you up the river
Like I did in last night’s dream
We’ll drift a moment in the moonlight
I’ll fish for little things to say
And with the help of Mr. Moonlight
Maybe you’ll see things my way
I tried to tell you how I care
But never made the grade
Now things might change if I could have
A setting for my serenade
So, can I canoe you up the river
I’ll be as nice as I can be
And hope that while we’re up the river
You’ll go overboard for me”
I responded to the following blog challenge today from J. A. Allen. These challenges are ways to get involved in creative writing…
The Challenge: It’s a BLIND DATE. And, it’s going great until one character’s unsettling confession. You have two paragraphs to work in. The blog could be truth or fiction.
“Nunthing” to Write Home About!
I sat quietly waiting for my date’s arrive. Apprehension, expectation, and curiosity dominated my being. I had carefully reviewed forty-seven personality profiles of interest on SeniorPeopleMeet.com. The lady that accepted my invitation for coffee and dessert was 68, spiritually focused, enjoyed travel, had never been married, and sought a new experience.
She arrived with a reserved smile, neatly dressed in gray slacks, a white embroidered blouse, and a light sweater. Our conversation focused on our common interests of spirituality and travel. I considered the possibility of another date when she flabbergasted me, “I am sorry Jim. I must confess that this date has been insincere. I am actually a nun and wanted to experience what other women enjoy about meeting a man in a safe situation.” I peered into her eyes in absolute silence.
Pleasant Grove Township
Our land in the rolling hills of Pleasant Grove Township was not as fertile as the dark top-soil on the flat prairie found just ten miles north of our farm. Seventy-five percent of our land was tillable; the rest was timber. Harvest varied greatly from one part of our farm to another depending on the clay and loam in a particular field. We compensated by using more fertilizer in the less fertile areas. Nevertheless the lack of rain could virtually wipe out any growth in some areas without the loam to protect the moisture.
Farming was definitely a career dependent on faith. Crop insurance did not exist in those days, so drought or an untimely freeze could seriously lower the income of a given farmer in any year. I don’t remember a single year that we didn’t have a decent harvest, but very dry summers sent farmers to church more frequently and to their knees to pray fervently.
The Sadness and Joy of Progress in Farming
“Those who do not move do not notice their chains.” Rosa Luxemburg
“According to a United States Department of Agriculture report, “the number of U.S. farms fell sharply after peaking at 6.8 million in 1935…By 2002, about 2.1 million farms remained.” Our farm was consolidated into a larger farm shortly after I entered college. And my father accepted public work at J. I. Case Company in Burlington as a radial drill operator. He loved his work both on the farm and in the public sector.
Current Google Map of My Childhood Farm
As I think about the shifts in farming over the last fifty years I am saddened by the depressing results of a progress of farming patterns that demanded a change in housing, machinery, and acres needed to make a living. The show place my parents created with paint, mown grass, a variety of perennial flowers, oaks, elms and birch trees, and fences now rests as rubble. The soil remains basically the same but everything else has changed. The former house, barns, trees, and fences of my childhood and adolescence became multiple piles of rocks, rotting wood, sagging fences, and a few remaining foundations. I am so thankful I didn’t hang around assuming everything would remain the same. Time and circumstance have swallowed much of what was—the normal result of the inevitable passing of time. The former buildings are like the walls of the Biblical Jericho. It is as if someone marched around my former little world, shouted loudly, blew a trumpet, and many buildings and trees came tumbling down. This house, this home served our family amazingly well. But like everything temporal, it has a life and is replaced by another present destined for its own lifetime.