In my basement today I found a copy of a newspaper column I wrote in April 1997. I am reprising it here, with edits, for my three sons — now 27, 24 and 22.
The allure of the mud — if not the mud itself — had worn off my three boys by early afternoon Sunday, a cold, raw day.
We went inside, where a raucous game of “wall ball” ensued in the family room. I searched for a less destructive activity. In the corner amid a stack of cassette tapes, I found an old favorite, “Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival,” which I hadn’t played for them in quite a while.
Because my two oldest sons are 8 and 6, I knew their memories of the stories would be incomplete. The 4-year-old wouldn’t remember them at all.
So I broke out the milk and cookies and had them sit down and listen to four of my favorites. All the stories were recorded at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., sometime before 1991.
My boys must have thought it strange, as they listened in utter silence, to see me laughing and wiping tears from my eyes at the same time.
Compressed in these four tales are invaluable lessons of love and pain, forgiveness and acceptance, life and death.
“Flowers and Freckle Cream” by Elizabeth Ellis deals with a 12-year-old girl’s painful self-consciousness about her looks. Jay O’Callahan’s “Orange Cheeks” is a joyous celebration of a 6-year-old boy’s relationship with his wise grandmother. “A Friend of My Father” by Maggi Kerr Peirce is a hilarious and poignant tale of life and death in Ireland. And Steve Sanfield’s “Could This Be Paradise?” is a clever parable about the grass always being greener on the other side.
The boys laughed at the funny parts, of course, and the two older ones seemed to be figuring out how to react to the painful parts.
That night at bedtime, my 6-year-old asked if they could hear an original story.
I said OK, but they had to help me create it. I ripped a sheet of paper into tiny squares and wrote a story element on each — “a color,” “a problem to solve,” “a boy’s name,” “a girl’s name,” “a cool place,” and so on.
I folded the scraps and put them into my oldest son’s Seattle Mariners baseball cap, and had each boy pick one without peeking. Because it was his idea, the 6-year-old went first and chose “a problem to solve” . . . “Rats eating clothes!” he said. (Oh, boy.)
The 8-year-old had to come up with a boy’s name: “Eberhard.” (Whose idea was this, anyway?) The 4-year-old, who picked “a cool place,” looked at me with his bright green eyes and said, “California.” (This one’s going to be trouble.)
The story I came up with wasn’t all that compelling, and may have contributed to the 4-year-old’s bad dreams that night.
It was the heroic tale of Eberhard Smithfield III, who lived in a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. With the help of Madeline the Maid, Eberhard figured out that a raccoon that had been wreaking havoc in the Smithfield mansion’s laundry room had found its way in by climbing through the clothes dryer vent.
(I know it was supposed to be a rat, but how could I send them off to never-never land with images of a disease-carrying rodent in their heads? Raccoons aren’t much better, but at least they’re cuter).
Now, a bedtime story isn’t complete without a moral, but I didn’t figure this one out until I was finished: Keep it short. (My 6-year-old fell asleep during the telling.) Or maybe I should just put in the cassette tape and let the pros handle it.
The greater lesson, of course, is that stories have incredible power — the power to help children laugh and think and feel, to use their imaginations, to figure out how to cope with their small world and the more harrowing grownup world to follow.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if the stories come from a professional on a stage, or from a rank amateur sitting on the floor of a dark, quiet bedroom.
According to the National Storytelling Festival schedule for 2015, Jay O’Callahan is a featured teller. (“Thank you, Grandma!”)