“Tell Me a Story,” column for May 14, 2013

On a recent road trip with my sister and two cousins, we took turns telling old stories about our family, especially our grandmother. If I had to choose just one story to remember her by, this would be it.

Her husband was a man of many callings, including that of a Baptist preacher. Occasionally he would share the pulpit with a visiting pastor, invite him home to supper and even offer to put him up overnight.

This never set well with her. She had 12 children — a lot of mouths to feed and beds to make without adding one more.

Nevertheless, she did her best to welcome them — all of them, save for one, who apparently overstayed his welcome.

I don’t know the man’s name. Maybe Gomer. If it was ever part of the story, it has long since been forgotten. But this much I well remember:

At breakfast one Saturday morning, the aforementioned houseguest dared to make an untoward remark about my grandmother’s biscuits. That was bad. But then he had the gall to say he wanted her to do his laundry and to starch and iron the shirt he planned to preach in the following day.

A hush fell over the table. The baby stopped crying. The clock stopped ticking. The dogs stopped scratching their fleas.

My grandfather later recalled feeling a chill crawl up his spine, causing the hair to bristle on the back of his neck as he waited, he said, for all hell to break loose.

Much to his surprise, his wife merely smiled and told their guest she’d be happy to oblige.

Which she was, extremely so.

The next day at church, she sat front row and center to hear the poor man preach, and tried her best not to laugh as he danced red-faced around the pulpit, pulling at his collar and hitching up his pants — thanks to the peach fuzz she had sprinkled in the neck of his shirt and the crotch of his undershorts.

I can summarize that story in one sentence: My grandmother did not abide ill manners or condescension, and she found instructive ways to make it clear to anyone daring to doubt her.

The sentence is true. But the story is a far truer telling of who she was, her nature and how her family remembers her.

Stories tell us who we are. They record all the pieces that we sometimes leave out. But it takes a lot of stories to convey the whole of a personality. And it takes a lot of time to tell and retell them, to commit them to memory before they are lost.

I grew up in a time and place in which storytelling was as much a part of everyday life as TV and texting are today.

My children, like all children, loved stories, especially stories about things they’d done that they had no business doing and managed not to get killed.

Their children love stories, too. They listen, not just with their ears, but with their whole bodies, growing quiet and still as a cat watching a gopher hole, hanging on every detail.

I wish you could see them.

I hope someday, years from now, my children and their children and their children’s grandchildren will tell a few stories about me.

Maybe they will tell the one about how, when I was 4, I hid my Aunt Hazel’s crutches and refused to give them back.

Or how, when my kids were little, I’d use tweezers to pull the fortunes out of their fortune cookies and replace them with more specific predictions aimed at putting the fear of God in their little daredevil souls.

Or about my persistent, annoying tendencies to try to get in the wrong car, and ask too many questions and embarrass my family and friends in print.

We don’t get to choose the stories that are told about us. The best we can hope for is that someone will know enough and remember enough and care enough to keep telling them.

And maybe, if we’re lucky, they will tell them with a smile.

That’s my story. What is yours?


  1. I always love your column!
    Telling stories is what we do best.
    I too hope that my children will tell stories about me. In fact, because I thought that I had forever to talk with my mother about family stories and what she thought about life in general, I started writing a blog. My mother died while I was racing west on I-40 headed to Memphis. I still wonder what she thought about some things. In order to remember what I am feeling, I write it down. Sometimes it isn’t pretty. At first only my kids read my stories but now friends and others have read it. I am not a writer; just someone who loves to talk and tell stories.

  2. C'est La and Ginny says

    remember the young bride from South Carolina whose husband moved her into a trailer in Richmond, California of all places ?….in the “idle wheels” park! What a journey it’s been…..

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