“The Magic Words,” Nov. 21, 2017

Henry is 6, totally engrossed in building some kind of Lego magnificence. But he stops flat-out and whips his head around to focus, body and soul, on me.

Why? I just whispered in his ear the Magic Words.

What are the Magic Words? They are a long-kept, closely guarded family secret that I share only with family, friends and anybody who asks.

OK, I’ll tell you. But first, I want to talk about the holidays.

They mean different things to each of us, depending on our memories, traditions, where we grew up and, yes, what we like to eat. I grew up in the South. Family gatherings meant serious Southern fixings: Ham and sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs, green beans, cornbread and biscuits and a variety of sweets from red velvet cake to pecan pie to the everpresent banana pudding. We were nothing if not well fed.

But more than a family of eaters, we were a family of storytellers: My parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins, the dogs that slept under the porch, even the fleas that slept on the dogs. We all told stories.

They were woven like invisible threads into the fabric of our daily lives. A trip to the dentist. The latest family drama. An unannounced visit by a not-so-neighborly neighbor. A near brush with death because Grandad, God bless him, fell asleep at the wheel, again.

With enough skill and maybe a bit of embellishment, anything could become a story. It might make you laugh or cry or roll your eyes in disbelief, but you absolutely could not ignore it.

Our everyday stories told us who we were, what we believed in, all we hoped for. But the best stories were told at holidays.

My grandparents’ house would be packed so tight with family and food the walls would bulge and the windows would rattle. At some point, after we ate our fill, we’d sit on the porch, or pile into the living room upon each others’ laps and somebody would tell a story.

“Remember the time …,” they would say, or “Back when we lived in Madison County….”

Then I’d hear a true (more or less) tale about wolves howling at the door, or a knife fight at a honkytonk, or how my great-granddad was a lawman like Marshall Dillon on “Gunsmoke.”

As a child, those stories made me marvel at the people in my family and the lives they led. I still marvel about them. I can’t recall what I wrote on a grocery list this morning, but I will never forget the stories I heard growing up.

We need to tell our stories and to hear others tell theirs, too. And holiday gatherings provide a perfect chance to do so.

The stories aren’t nearly as important as the connection between the teller and the listener. It’s a give-and-take that brings us together, shows us how we’re alike and reminds us that, in so many ways, we are all part of the same neverending story.

So how do you capture the attention of a six-year-old, or an elderly uncle, or that stranger who sits next to you at dinner?

It’s easy. Try the Magic Words: “Once upon a time….” Or “When I was a child ….” Or my favorite, “Way back when I had half as much sense as I have now….”

Then tell a story. Make it a good one. Keep it short. Tell it like it’s the best story you ever told. And maybe it will be.

Finally, ask the listener to tell you a story in return. Lots of us have stories we long to tell, but no one ever asks to hear them. What a shame to leave this world without getting to tell our stories.

Ask someone to tell you theirs. You’ll be glad you did.

Henry climbs up in my lap and gives me his best Henry smile.

“Tell me a story, Nana.”

I take his face in my hands, look in his eyes and see a world of stories waiting to be told.

“No, my darlin’,” I say. “I told you one. Now it’s your turn to tell one to me.”

And so he does.


  1. LOVE this reminder to tell stories! My Grandmothers were the BEST Story tellers!
    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Everyone!

  2. I always read your column but never have bothered to read the comments your readers make. Oh how I was missing something! I love the one today about going to a bar in NC and the bouncer asks if you are carrying a gun and if the answer is no, he gives you one!

  3. Betty Gay Bewley says

    Oh I do love your stories, Sharon.
    Here’s one. My mom’s wanted to name me Sharon Gay but while she was in the hospital after having me, my daddy wrote out the birth announcements and named me Betty Gay.

  4. Christine Timchek says

    Since I have moved to NC two decades ago (and change, as you would say) a lot of the stories make so much more sense to me.
    One of my favorites, which you will appreciate is supposed to be real, and taking place in King, NC, a neighbor swears to it:
    Bar: bouncer asks if you are carrying a gun.
    If the answer is no, he gives you one!

  5. Sally Merrill says

    You always make be smile and tear up a little! I love when my grandson tells me about his latest video game he’s been playing and who he defeated, even though most of the time I don’t have a clue about what he’s telling me….but I love that it was important to him to tell me about it! He loves when I tell him stories about his Momma when she was a little girl! Happy Thanksgiving and enjoy every moment with those precious grandchildren!

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