Monday, August 31, 2015

Passing the Torch

    STF Opening Address, March 5, 1999

                                              Written and Presented by Linda Goodman
         ©Linda Goodman 1999

    The theme for this year’s Sharing the Fire is “Passing the Torch.”   Of course, for one to pass the torch there must be a potential torch-bearer to accept it.  I suspect that a number of you are newcomers to Sharing
    the Fire.  Even some you old-times here may be sitting on the fence, not yet convinced that the storytelling torch is one that you can bear.  Perhaps this conference will make up your mind for you.  At the very least, it will give you a lot to think about.

    Personally, I believe that “Passing the Torch” is a misnomer.  The word “the” implies that there is only one torch to pass.  Every true storyteller has countless torches in his or her cache.  As soon as one is passed along, another is taken and held aloft as the storyteller waits for the next torch bearer to come.  The torches are lit from an eternal flame that burns deep in our hearts, a flame that cannot be ignored once it has made its presence known.  We have no choice but to share the fire, to “pass torches.”

    I could give you many reasons as to why the storytelling torch is a worthy one to pass.  There are the rote reasons that we use all the time – the ones we use to convince schools and other institutions to engage
    storytellers.  I will not enumerate those reasons because you know them already and can probably recite them by heart.  As a storyteller, I have learned that my stories do not work unless they live in my heart.  For
    that reason I would like to share with you why the flame of storytelling burns in my heart, why I could not ignore it even if I tried – and, believe me, I have tried.

    I was born in the town St. Paul in Wise County, Virginia – a coal mining area nestled in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.  We lived in primitive conditions when I was born there in 1952.  In fact, my family, along with most of the other families we knew, had no electricity: ergo, no television.  That was okay, though.  We managed to find other ways to amuse ourselves.  There were church socials and county fairs.  My favorite activity was to go into the center of town on a Saturday afternoon and listen to the storytellers who gathered there.

    One of the most popular storytellers in the area just happened to be my father. Daddy had had a touch of the wanderlust in his youth and had hopped freight trains all over North America before coming back to Wise County to settle down at the ripe old age of forty-one.  He could hold folks spellbound for hours with his tales of far-off places.  Most of his audience had never been outside Wise County.  Storytelling, I learned early in life, could make me feel like I had actually visited places I had never even seen; could even make me feel like I knew people I had never even met.  My family could not afford movies in those days, but storytelling allowed me to paint pictures in my own imagination – pictures that were just as detailed and real as those on the big screen.

    My parents used storytelling to teach their children and found it to be quite a successful learning tool.  I was never told  to not do something.  Rather, I was told a story about someone who suffered the consequences of the actions I was contemplating.  When my mother found me playing near the road, she did not tell me not to play near the road.  Instead, she said, “You know, my cousin, Marthie Jean, played
    near the road one day.  Wagon come by.  Wheel broke loose.  Rolled over her leg and broke it in three places.  She still limps to this very day!”

    It never occurred to me to ask how one wheel could break a leg in three places.  I never played near the road again.

    When the first European settlers migrated to the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee, they found a people already living there in villages with English-style houses and Christian churches.  These people had the appearance of being white, spoke Elizabethan English, claimed to be “Portyghee”, and called themselves Melungeons.  These are the people from whom I am descended.
    The Melungeons were living on the fertile land of the valleys, the best land: the land that these new settlers wanted, and, indeed, had even been promised, for themselves.  They seized this land by the only legal
    means possible at the time.  They convinced the state of Tennessee to declare the Melungeons to be free people of color.  Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky , and North Carolina followed suit.  Free people of color were not allowed to own land.  They could not even petition the courts to right this injustice.

    The result was that the Melungeons were forced to leave their own land. They were banished into the mountains, pushed further and further back until finally they settled on the rocky soil where no sane person would choose to live.  Folks started calling them by a new name:  ridge-runners.

    The origin of the Melungeons is a mystery to this day, but many stories have circulated about where they came from and what kind of people they are.  So many theories have been put forth that the Melungeons are often referred to as “Sons and Daughters of the Legend.”  Legend, in this instance, is not a complimentary term.  I heard those legends often when I was a child.  One of them claimed that the Melungeons were tri-racial isolates, an ominous mixture of renegade Indian, escaped slave, and poor
    white trash.  Always the stories about Melungeons contained adjectives like inbred, immoral, filthy, and ignorant.  Some of the stories even used us as a substitute for the boogey-man.  “If you don’t behave,” children were told, “the Melungeons will get you!”

    Thank God that I had the stories of my father, a man whom I knew to speak true, to counter-balance the stories that I heard when I went into town.  My father’s stories were about a people so intelligent that they could grow vegetables from rock; a people of integrity, who would rather die than go against their principles; a people who communed with nature to the point that they could predict the weather as well as any modern weatherman, who knew the habits of any animal native to their mountain home; a people dedicated to family and fiercely loyal to friends.  My father’s stories are responsible for the pride that I have in my heritage today.  I shudder to think what my life would have been like, had I not had him to expose the lies that were told by those who did not know or understand us.

    Today the Melungeon story has been preserved in a book entitled Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People.  In this book, author N. Brent Kennedy reclaims the dignity that had been lost to so many
    Melungeons.  As a result of his story, many who have spent their lives hiding their pasts have come forward to claim their heritage at last. Our story is being told and told often, and the story’s power is making those who once derided our way of life not only hear, but listen.

    When my family moved from the Appalachian Mountains to Portsmouth, Virginia, we found that Portsmouth folks (City Slickers, we called them) did not care much for hillbillies in their midst.  We were outsiders.  The grown-ups, I believe, did not mind being outsiders.  In fact, I believe they preferred it that way.  But we children wanted nothing more than to fit into our new environment.  My brother Allen hit upon the idea that the Great Dismal Swamp, which was just a few miles from our apartment, was the way to do it. 

    All of us kids knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone else, who had gone into that swamp and never returned – just disappeared.  Dozens of stories circulated about what might have happened to them.  My brother Allen managed to convince my brother Lee that if the two of them could go into that swamp, spend the day, and live to tell the tale, they would be heroes.  Everyone would want to be their friend. 

    That is how I came to be among a group of children standing on the edge of the swamp one Saturday morning, waving to my brothers as they walked inside.  Tears streaked my face – I was sure that I would never see either of them again.  But in the late afternoon, back out they came, bringing with them a tale of having found a grown man sunk up to his neck in quicksand.  They claimed they had each grabbed an arm and popped him up to safety.

    It never occurred to the rest of us kids to ask my brothers where that man was.  All we knew was that they had spent the day in the swamp and had not only managed to survive, but had saved a life in the bargain.  My brothers’ plan had worked.  They did become heroes.  Everyone wanted to be their friend.  And I was  an eye-witness to a real-life example of how storytelling can break down barriers.  My brothers became leaders among the kids in our neighborhood.  They became a valued part of the community that had scorned them.  That was a lesson I have never forgotten, and as I have moved around the country for the past sixteen years, I have learned that storytellers do not remain friendless for long.

    On August 8, 1987, my brother Lee called and gave me the sad news that my father was in the hospital.  He was dying of bone cancer, and the doctors expected him to live for just a few days longer.  I left my home in Connecticut and flew down to Virginia to be with him.  There was a crowd of people in his hospital room when I arrived, and so I hung back until the crowd had thinned out and only my sister and I were left in the room with him.  The morphine was wearing off and he was in a great deal of pain when he finally saw me.  I took his hand, and he whispered, “Please, Linda, take me home.”

    I looked at his swollen body, the tubes, and the needles – and I knew that I could not do what he was asking.  I brushed his forehead with my lips, looked deep into his eyes, and said, “Daddy, I can’t take you home.  But maybe I can make this place feel more like home.  Would you like that?”

    He nodded and closed his eyes, and I began to tell him the stories that he had told me when I was a little girl.  I told his favorites:  Taily Bone, Sody Salyrytus, and Lazy Jack.  Somewhere near the end of the
    telling, a nurse came in and gave him a shot of morphine.  A short while later he was snoring.  He slept in peace and I was relieved that his pain had been temporarily relieved.  But I also felt helpless and useless.  He had made such a simple request, for the first time asking me to do something for him, and I had been unable to fulfill it.  At just that moment, my sister, as though reading my thoughts, touched my shoulder and said, “You gave him what he wanted, Linda.  Your stories took him home.”

    At ten o’clock that evening, the hospital called me at my parents’ apartment to let me know that my father had passed away.  I called my brothers and my sister.  We all gathered together with my mother, trying
    to imagine our family without its anchor.  Tears flowed freely at first.  All we could see was darkness.  But then something amazing happened.  My brother Lee told the story about how my father had once gotten his foot stuck in my mother’s favorite coffee pot.  Then I told the story of the time that Daddy thought the preacher was the Fuller Brush man.  My sister Evelyn told about the day he had waited in the wrong house for my brother Lee to come home.  My brother Allen told about the time Daddy had made delicious biscuits, but had not checked the measuring cup first.  Our biscuits were filled with screws, nuts, and bolts. Suddenly the tears were replaced by laughter, and the image of our father suffering in that hospital bed was vanquished.  The stories enabled us to celebrate the strong and vital man that he had been, the man whom we were blessed to call father.

    A year-and-a-half later, on February 28, 1989, I received a phone call from my mother, who wanted to talk.  I was busy studying for an economics exam and told her that I would call her back.  “I’ll only keep you a few minutes,” she countered.

    Anyone who knew my mother knew that she was not capable of a conversation that lasted only a few minutes.  “I’ll call you back tomorrow, Momma,” I insisted, and as I was hanging up the phone, I could hear her say, in the background, “Nobody wants to talk to me.”

    I felt guilty, but not guilty enough to stop studying and call her back that evening.  “Tomorrow,” I reasoned, “I will have more time.”

    The next day, after I had taken my exam, I returned to my office to call Momma.  But before I could pick up the phone to dial, it rang.  It was my brother Allen, calling to tell me that my mother had passed away during the night.  She had not even been sick.  Her death was a total surprise.

    After the funeral in Virginia, I returned home to Connecticut carrying the burden of knowing that I had refused  to talk with my mother on the last day of her life.  I dealt with this burden by burying it.   I kept myself too busy to think about it.  I ignored my husband and my daughter most of the time, and when I was not ignoring them, I was making them miserable.  A year passed before my husband reached the limit his patience could endure.  “You need help,” he insisted.

    I found that help from a wonderful grief counselor in Coventry, Connecticut, who advised me to deal with my grief and guilt through my storytelling.  I took her advice and starting writing and telling stories about my mother.

    The first story I wrote was The Radio, which was about a Christmas present that my mother had bought me.  As I shared this story, I remembered the warmth and strength of my mother’s love.  Then I wrote The Punishment, the story of a fake whipping from my father that had moved my mother to show me compassion at a time when I did not think she was capable of compassion.  This story, too, made me remember my mother’s love.

    Neither of these stories helped me, however, because my mother’s love had never been in question.  I needed a story that would convince me that she knew that I loved her.  I was at the lowest and darkest point in my life when I remembered the first birthday present I had ever bought my mother.  The memory was so vivid that I ran to my word processor immediately, unable to wait to get the story in written form.  It flowed so quickly and so easily that I feel strange when I take credit as its author.  I prefer to think of this story as a special gift from a guardian angel, my mother.  The Bobby Pins was my salvation. 

    Telling The Bobby Pins helps me to remember that the brief conversation that my mother and I had on the evening before she died was just one moment in time.  There were other moments as well, and they were beautiful.  I know that my mother was aware of the deep love I had for her.. 

    Whenever I share stories about either of my parents, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how lucky I am to have been raised by two such wonderful people.  What better tribute can be paid to a loved one?

    On August 15, 1996, my granddaughter Morgan was born.  She seemed perfect, but one week after her birth, a routine exam revealed a problem with her right eye.  She was immediately rushed to a pediatric ophthalmologist, who discovered a cataract.

    The pediatrician had prepared us for the possibility of a tumor, so to me the diagnosis of a cataract seemed like good news.  My daughter Melanie, however, was devastated.  The weekend after the surgery, Melanie and Morgan stayed at my home.  Morgan was in a lot of pain and needed constant care and comfort.  That Saturday evening, I came downstairs to find Melanie, tears running down her face, rocking Morgan back and forth as she held her close.  When I asked her what was wrong, she was indignant.  “I did everything right!”  she protested.  “I didn’t drink or smoke.  I know people who did drugs when they were pregnant, and their babies are fine!  Why did this have to happen to my baby?”

    I had no answers for her, but that evening as I said my prayers I asked that somehow Melanie would find some peace so that she could enjoy her child and get on with the business of living. 

    That night as I tried to get to sleep, I remembered a story entitled The Visit of the Tomten, by Barry L. Johnson.  I had ordered the story from Upper Room Books a few years earlier, with the intention of adding it to my Christmas repertoire.  I had told the story only a few times when I realized that there was no spark between it and me, no chemistry.  I had stopped telling the story.

    The Visit of the Tomten is set in Sweden on Christmas Eve.  It is the story of four animals waiting for the Tomten to bring their Christmas gifts.  The animals know exactly what they want, and feel confident that the Tomten will oblige them.   As it turns out, however, the animals not only do not get what they want, they cannot make any sense of the gifts they do get.  Ivan, the dog, the sage of the barnyard, gets a bird with a broken wing.  “I hate birds!” he rails, “and this one isn’t even right!”  Angry, the animals devise a plan to trap the Tomten and make him explain their ridiculous gifts.

    Once caught, the Tomten is dumbfounded.  “No gift is ridiculous!” he exclaims, before proceeding to explain the gifts’ value.  To Ivan, he says, “To be asked to take care of the handicapped is no insult.  On the contrary, it is a great honor.  I chose you to care for the disadvantaged bird because I trusted your wisdom  and courage to give it the very best life it could have.”

    The next morning I could not wait to speak to Melanie.  I shared Mr. Johnson’s story with her, and I added a postscript.  I told her that I could see God in heaven looking at all these babies waiting to be born, and he knew that Morgan had a special problem.  With this in mind, He surveyed all of the expectant mothers on earth, looking for that special one with the wisdom and courage to give Morgan the very best life she could have.  “Melanie,” I assured her, “He chose you.”

    It was just what she needed to hear.  After a moment’s reflection, her eyes lit up and a smile spread across her face.  “That’s right, Momma,” she enthused.  “I wouldn’t trade Morgan for all the perfect babies in the world.  I’m going to make sure that she has everything she needs.”

    After my husband and I relocated from Massachusetts to Virginia in 1998, I spent some time reflecting on my career as a storyteller thus far.  This reflection caused me to feel a certain pride tinged with sadness.  I had been successful in convincing others of the power and value of storytelling, and I am proud to say that I have been instrumental in bringing a number of remarkable storytellers into fold.  I had been a complete failure, however, in convincing family members to take up the cause. Suddenly I understood my father’s sense of urgency to get all his stories told, as well as the sense of peace he felt when I told him that I wanted to share stories about our family.  When I am gone, I told myself, the bulk of my stories will go with me.  I thought that the only way to avoid this was to get published, and so I began writing furiously.

    In October, however, I reconnected with my niece Sandi. I began to tell Sandi the story of our family’s Melungeon heritage.  Sandi had not heard any of these stories before. Indeed, she had not even known that we were of Melungeon descent.  “These are amazing stories!”she declared. While Sandi prefers listening to telling, her love of story has inspsired her children to become storytellers.They have taken up the torch! *

    I hope that by the end of this weekend, those of you who are sitting on the fence will be convinced to take up the cause of storytelling, to be torch bearers.  But I would be remiss if I did not warn you that with the torch comes responsibility.  The torch must be held high, because its flame is white-hot and can destroy everything in its path if it falls into the wrong hands.  Make those who would take it from you reach for it.  Remember that story was one of the instruments that Hitler used to justify exterminating anyone who do did fit his model for the master race.  Bigots have used story to convince the ignorant and na├»ve that certain races are inferior to others.  For every person who heard my father’s stories of Melungeon wisdom and integrity, there was another who heard the stories of Melungeon ignorance in filth.  Unfortunately, the tellers of those false stories were just as powerful and just as eloquent as my father. 

    When you leave this conference, take a torch with you.  Use it to light the flame in your own heart.  Draw on the flame’s energy to bring joy to others.  Draw on the its wisdom to teach the truth.  Draw on its power to heal and reconcile.  Then wait for the next torch bearer to come along and pass the torch to him.  Share the fire.

    *2015 Update: Sandi now has six children. If you were at the NSN Conference in Richmond, VA in 2013, you may have met four of them there. They are the Lowery children, and they belong to a group called The Story Warriors, led by Les Schafer. They performed at the pre-conference activities. The group is still going strong.