The Vanishing Storyteller (Best of WH)

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“I used to sit on the porch steps, usually with a stick in my hand, digging at the dirt by the brick-lined walk. My parents and aunts and uncles sat on benches or straight-back wicker chairs; my grandfather always got the rocker and my grandmother usually sat in the swing. Sometimes, I would sit with her in the swing, cuddling against her soft plumpness, until she would say, ‘Oh, My Lord, it is hot tonight. Get away, Honey, it’s too hot to have you crawlin’ all over me.’ And so I would return to the porch steps.”—Wayne Mergler

Above The Timberline

By Wayne Mergler

Eudora Welty, author of “One Writer’s Beginnings.”

Wayne MerglerANCHORAGE Alaska—(Weekly Hubris)—First Published on 10/11/2010—The late, wonderful Eudora Welty wrote in her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that she learned to be a writer mainly by listening, as a child, to the conversations of the adults around her.

I was particularly moved by that description because I remember how much that kind of listening and absorbing was a part of my own childhood. In those days, in the South, before television seems to have ruined nearly everything, before air conditioning altered whatever TV missed, everyone used to sit on their front porches in the cool of the evening after supper.

Most people had wide porches, usually lined with rocking chairs and benches and the omnipresent porch swing. After supper, in the summertime, the house was hot—hot from the kitchen stoves, hot from the sumptuous meal every Southern family seemed to insist be eaten, hot from the number of bodies steaming and sweating in the humid heat. The heat of the day settled into the very bones of the house. After supper, the only place anyone ever wanted to be was outside, on the porch.

I used to sit on the porch steps, usually with a stick in my hand, digging at the dirt by the brick-lined walk. My parents and aunts and uncles sat on benches or straight-back wicker chairs; my grandfather always got the rocker and my grandmother usually sat in the swing. Sometimes, I would sit with her in the swing, cuddling against her soft plumpness, until she would say, “Oh, My Lord, it is hot tonight. Get away, Honey, it’s too hot to have you crawlin’ all over me.” And so I would return to the porch steps.

We would sit there, after supper, the whole family, talking and talking long after the sun had gone down and the lightning bugs had come out to flicker in little bright golden bursts against the dark. We lived in the country, so there were no neighbors to wave at or chat to across the street but, in the towns and cities, whole neighborhoods would be out on those summer nights—and in other seasons, too—calling in neighborly voices across the street or from the sidewalk as they walked by, taking their evening constitutionals. It sounds bucolic enough, I suppose, almost like a dream now, like some long lost idyll from across time. And I guess it is that. But there was always so much going on those nights on the porch. There were conversations and jokes and laughter and teasings and sometimes spats but, most importantly, there were always stories.

Of course, no one ever said, “I am going to tell a story, now.” In fact, I doubt that most of us even knew that stories were occurring. But stories abounded, night after night after night; accidental stories, incidental stories, trivial stories, profound stories. And for a child, in those days, without a TV to watch or a Gameboy to play with or textings or tweetings to undertake, the stories were alive and fascinating and real.

“Did you see Old Man Farmer’s new calf?” my grandmother would ask my grandfather.

“Hell, yeah. It’s not gonna make it. Calf born with only three legs. Damndest thing I ever saw,” my grandfather would reply.

And then would begin a long, convoluted account of a three-legged-calf’s attempts to stand up and walk, to nurse from its mother’s udders, to explore its barnyard world. And other stories of other strange creatures everyone had seen would emerge.

“Remember that banty rooster that Fannie Lee had, the one that lost a foot? Remember how it hopped around on one foot like it was born to it?”

“Remember Uncle Bill’s beagle that was bit by the copperhead snake, how it grew a goiter around its neck and was the strangest looking crittur ever seen on God’s green earth?”

And on and on it went. Strange creatures, freaks of nature, some downright monsters filled the night and the imagination.

And then there was always the story of the neighbor down the road who got drunk one night and shot off his big toe. Or the fire that burned down Old Lady Somebody’s house up the road, that suspicious fire that made everyone suspect that the old widow-woman had set that fire herself for the insurance money.

Or the story about the ball lightning that my grandmother saw when she was a girl, how it had rolled, three big golden balls of fire, into the open front door of the old country house, down the hall, and out the kitchen door while she sat with mouth open in astonishment. And the poignant story about lovely Aunt Laura who, as a young woman, fell out of a cherry tree while picking cherries in the high branches and broke her neck, killing her instantly.

Every night there were such stories. Some nights were richer in tales than others. It was just conversation, nothing particularly unusual, just talk, gossip about neighbors and relatives, re-hashings of the day’s events but, to a listening child, they were stories as exotic and weird as anything out of The Arabian Nights.

I don’t think this happens so much anymore. TV and computers have lured children away from family conversations. In fact, the adults have been lured away, too. Such conversations are rarely had today, except maybe at family reunions and, even then, the kids are usually banished to the TV room while the adults talk.

Once upon a time . . .

Eudora Welty (again) has a splendid novel called Losing Battles, about a family reunion in the Mississippi hill country of the 1930s, where a large extended family gathers for a great-grandmother’s 90th birthday. They all arrive, from various parts of the state, in their wild and eccentric collection of automobiles and buggies and wagons and trucks, and they sprawl about the porch and the lawn, eating and drinking and laughing and telling stories from the family’s past and from the community in which they all grew up. Story after story enriches the book. Like Sheherazade’s ramblings, one story leads into another and then into another. And the reader soon realizes that this is not really a story about a family reunion. It is, instead, a collection of stories about a hundred different things.

My high school students, the few who attempted to read Losing Battles from the list of literary works that I recommended, would always complain: “This book is boring! Nothing happens in it! All these people do is sit around and talk!”

“It is not boring!” I would argue. “Tons of stuff happens in this book! It is full of happenings! It is fascinating. It’s not about the people at the reunion. It’s not about what they do. It’s about the stories they tell. It’s about the people in the stories. In the stories they tell, we find epic heroes, heroic battles between good and evil, battles with terrifying monsters; there are love stories and folk tales and wild, tall tales and strange creatures and hairbreadth escapes and derring-do, all within the stories these people tell each other at their reunion. True stories, embellished no doubt by their own imaginations and storytelling talents. And the book then shows us the power of storytelling, the ability of stories to connect people to their own lives, their own families, their own worlds. It’s a wonderful book.”

They would look at me slack-jawed. They’d never thought of it that way.

“Maybe I’ll try it again,” some would say.

The problem is that there are very few storytellers around anymore. Not real storytellers anyway. My high school students had, for the most part, no experience at all with listening to stories and certainly even less experience with telling them. I used to tell them stories in class all the time, usually stories from my own experience, something that had happened to me at an impressionable age, something that happened to me that morning on the way to school. Just . . . stories.  And always, always, they said to me, “Mr. Mergler, you have had such an interesting life. So many exciting and fascinating things have happened to you!” And I would be surprised by that each time they said it. My life, I tried to explain to them, was not one with more interesting or exciting than anyone else’s; certainly not more so than any of theirs.

“Nothing ever happens to us,” they would insist.

“Things happen to you every day,” I would insist right back. “Things happen to you all the time. They are happening right now! The difference is that you don’t think in terms of stories. Writers think in stories. I think in stories. I always have. If you think in stories, then just a trip to Safeway or to the credit union is a story. Think about it. Think about all the things that happened when you went with your mother to the grocery store over the weekend. There were stories being enacted right there—the young guy, clearly a bachelor, trying to figure out what to buy, or the sad old man, shopping alone, doing the job that probably his wife had always done for him for the last 50 years. And the woman with whom your mother struck up a conversation in the check-out line. And the incompetent young boy who rang you up and made such a muddle of your bill. And the cranky lady whose ankles you brushed against with your cart when you were sidetracked by the magazine with Brad Pitt on the cover. Or whatever. Stories abound. Your life is full of stories. You could take any day of your life and write a story about it . . . only, if only you thought like a writer, if only you thought in stories.”

 

Of course, the message is that ordinary things become extraordinary in the hands of an imaginative storyteller. Using Eudora Welty yet again: I used to teach her famous story, “A Worn Path,” to my high school students. Same response. “Nothing happens in this story!” they would shout rebelliously. “It’s so boring!” The story is about an ancient Black woman who walks to town to get medicine for her grandchild. That’s it. That’s all that happens, superficially anyway. They rested their case.

“But so much happens!” I would say. “This is the story of an epic journey, a journey worthy of Homer. To this ancient woman, a two-mile trek through the woods into town is a journey of nearly impossible odds. There are hazards everywhere along the way. There are epic battles to be fought. And there is mystery, too. Is there really a grandchild? She is so old, her grandchild must surely be at least 50 by now. Is she senile? Is she imagining that her grandchild still needs her and that she must accomplish this impossible mission before she can rest?”

The story was hard for them because all stories now are hard for them. They did not grow up hearing stories, even gossip about the neighbors. I was always flabbergasted to learn how little my Creative Writing students knew about their own family histories. Many of them did not even know their mother’s maiden names or how their parents met or any anecdotes at all from their parents’ childhoods. Weren’t they listening all those years? The answer, sadly, was no. Most were in their rooms, watching TV. No one talked to them, no one told them stories. When I required that they write their own creative stories, I usually got stories recycled from TV sitcoms or watered-down episodes of television.

When I finally grew up and left the gossipy porches of the South, I was fortunate in my choice of location. Alaska is still a place of storytelling. Because it is an unusual place, a unique (in many ways) place, stories still abound here. There are always fishing stories, some tall and colorful, but undeniably based in truth. There are hunting stories, stories about encounters with wild animals, stories about the quirks and dangers of nature—stories of earthquakes and volcanoes and flash floods, stories about the bizarre behavior of some of the world’s great eccentrics.

When my wife Maureen and I first came to Alaska, in our early 20s, we rented a small apartment in Anchorage’s mid-town and happily, eagerly soaked up as much local color and storytelling as we could. One of our neighbors was an old trapper named Ike (I never knew his last name). In those days, Ike must have been in his late 50s or early 60s. He had lived a long and colorful life in the Alaskan Bush, settling down into Anchorage in later life only when health problems dictated that he stay near medical services. He was a tall, skinny, stooped man, as leathery as a tanned hide, with a long white beard and white hair that flowed over his shoulders.

One night, when Maureen and I had just moved in to our apartment, he and his wife stopped by to welcome us to the neighborhood. He brought a jar of lowbush cranberry jelly and a bottle of Jack Daniels. His wife was a silent, stoic Athabaskan Indian woman, who sat by his side during the entire visit, never uttering a word or responding to any of our smiles or comments or questions. She was an Alaskan Yoko Ono and, somehow, she fascinated me in her silence as much as her very loquacious husband did with his continuous chatter.

“She don’t talk much,” Ike would explain to us, as he erupted into a non-stop talking jag that held us, spellbound, for hours as he spun story after story from his own life of adventure and hardship. He was our first Alaskan character (but not, by a long shot, our last) and the sheer breadth and depth of his storytelling was dazzling.

He had been a miner, a trapper; he had been mauled by countless bears and eagerly showed us the scars that were bunched up over his back and side and chest like ropes. He had lived alone in various cabins for years, had lived with Indians in their villages for even more years, had killed a man unabashedly on the Kuskokwim River when they had both been drunk and had decided to carve each other up with hunting knives. He talked so much that night that, fascinating though he was, Maureen and I began to grow exhausted and wondered if he and his silent woman would ever leave.

Maureen, a bolder soul than I, finally stood up and announced that she had to go to bed. And she did so. But I, half still wanting to hear more stories and half not wanting to offend my first Alaskan friend, continued to sit up with Ike and his wife, listening to the stories and filing them away in my head, in that vast archive of stories that stretched all the way back to the porch at my grandmother’s house in Virginia.

Ike and his wife did finally leave and I don’t recall that they ever came back to visit us again, but I did often see Ike in his yard or on the street and we would exchange waves.

Alaskans are still big storytellers because of the uniqueness of their lifestyles and the place where they live. The Native Alaskans—the Tlingit and Athabaskan Indians, the Aleuts, the Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos—are the most dedicated and the best of the storytellers. To be around an Alaska Native for more than a few minutes is to suddenly be told a story. And what stories they are! Some seem so alien to mainstream white people that they are difficult to interpret. But not only are the stories marvelous, but the storytelling is gifted and inspired, usually wrapped in a rich rhythm of Native accents and speech patterns.

One winter day, beautiful and sunny and crisp, with the sunlight on the snow bright and golden, I left the store where I was working in downtown Anchorage and went to the Town Square Park to sit on a bench and eat my lunch. Beautiful though the sunny wintry day was, it was very cold, and so there were no other people in the park, except myself and an old Inupiat Eskimo man seated nearby. He greeted me, commented on the cold weather—trust me, if an Inupiat Eskimo thinks it is cold, it is COLD—and eyed my sandwich lustily.

As it happened, I had two sandwiches in my bag and so I asked if he wanted one. I didn’t have to ask twice. He came over, sat next to me on the bench, and happily ate the sandwich as I ate mine. In only a matter of moments, he had started on a story. He told me about a time, when he was a boy in the Arctic, when it got so cold that his own urine froze before it reached the ground when he had stopped to relieve himself. (The original golden arches!) That was a great story beginning, I thought. And he went on to share some of his boyhood adventures, all about his father who died when a sudden thawing of the Arctic ice created a crack that opened up beneath his feet and sucked him under, about how he and his mother, who had been with the father, had to trek home alone, over the frozen ice, listening to its moans and groans and restless stirrings, as if it too was about to crack beneath them, and then, at last, over the frozen land back to their people. I remember that it was a great afternoon’s luncheon. And I enjoyed the old man’s stories so much that I was late getting back to work at the bookstore. But it was worth it.

“Do you think those stories are true?” my own children would ask me, when I often repeated the tall tales I had heard from Alaskans over the years.

“I think they are true on some levels,” I would say. “One man’s reality is another man’s fantasy.”

Some of the Natives tell stories that make white men just laugh and scoff. But they are often the poorer for their scoffs. I tend to believe every story I am told, mainly because I want to.

Mark Twain, another great and indispensable storyteller, used to say that there were fine distinctions between stories and lies. Some of the best storytellers he knew, on the Mississippi River and out West, were also the biggest, “gol’darndest” liars he had ever come across.

I am now reminded of my favorite aunt, who is now still going strong at 89. Recently, when my cousin showed her a hard copy of one of my Weekly Hubris columns, she read it, snorted, and said: “Wayne is full of sh*t.”

Well, everyone is a critic and I guess our own families and neighbors are the toughest critics of all. And I suppose all storytellers are “full of sh*t” in one way or another. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

The image used to illustrate this column features a “Storytelling Chair,” others of which may be found at http://www.freerangedesigns.co.uk/products/chairs/storytelling-chairs.html

The image of Kincaid Park, Anchorage, Alaska comprises a photograph by Paxson Woelber, and may be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/paxson_woelber/6567885449/

About Wayne Mergler

Wayne Mergler was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1944 and grew up in Ohio, Georgia, and Europe. A graduate of Auburn University, he also studied at the University of London and at the University of Alaska Anchorage. In 1968, he and his wife Maureen, impossibly young and looking for adventure, drove cross country up the Alcan Highway to Alaska, where they found everything they were looking for, and more. Mergler taught English, drama, philosophy, and history in the Anchorage public schools for 25 years, taught literature and writing and film as an adjunct at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and currently teaches literature to senior citizens. He is the author/editor of the award-winning, definitive anthology of Alaska literature, The Last New Land, now in its fourth edition. He has, in addition: appeared on radio and TV talk shows in Alaska; lectured on literature and history; been a contributor to the public radio series, "Hold This Thought"; worked as a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and the Anchorage Chronicle; been a book critic and reviewer; and is also active in community and professional theater. (Wayne's a busy old critter!) Now retired, Mergler works as a part-time bookseller. He and Maureen live in Anchorage, have three grown children (Joanna, Heather, and Seth) and eight grandchildren, all home-grown Alaskans. Author Photo: Heather Emerson
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