'Read me a story out of your head'


December 23, 1992|By Betty Driscoll

KATIE, my 4-year-old niece, already had heard me read several bedtime stories. "Now," she said, "read me a story out of your head."

She settled her own head on the pillow and listened. There were no pictures, no pop-ups, no fancy cartoons -- just the rhythm of her breathing and the rise and fall of my voice. She had heard the story before: little girl lost, little girl found, happy ever after. My story ended in a whisper.

I looked to see if her eyes were closed, but they stared back. "Just one more," she pleaded, then surrendered to her thumb.

Sometimes I think it was plain luck to be born into a large Irish family at a time when people listened to the radio, lingered in talk at the dinner table and told stories. When you grow up in a large, story-telling family, you don't get much chance to talk. You grow up listening. We listened to the wisdom and adventures of grandparents, great-aunts, uncles and, at times, cousins.

The wonderful stories told around the dinning room table, at wakes and weddings or any gathering of more than one generation usually started in the present but moved to the past. While Eudora Welty's mother read her Dickens, and Annie Dillard's father got carried away with Mark Twain, my father was telling wild tales about taming beasts in Africa.

There were true stories, too, about boarding school and a not-so-willing student, about a great-grandfather from County Clare. Sometimes it was difficult to separate fact from fiction, but it didn't matter; we listened, we laughed, and we learned to invent the truth.

Russell Baker credits part of his success as a writer to his extended family. Early on he had to cultivate the art of listening.

Talking might be important if you're going to be a lawyer, he noted, but if you want to be a writer, the key is listening.

In the classroom I deal with stories every day. I introduce my seventh- and eighth-grade students to Huck Finn, Jane Eyre and Holden Caufield. Usually, it's the first time they will meet these characters, and all my energy is focused on making them friends for life. My students sit before me with a wonderful freshness, inspecting the volumes on their desks. I watch them closely as they finger the pages and check the chapter lengths.

My expectations grow with each sign of interest. Will they understand? Will they care? Will they feel the meaning?

In his book "The Call of Stories," Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard, talks about the importance of stories in our lives. He was taught early in his medical career by his mentors, one of them the poet William Carlos Williams, to encourage his patients to tell their stories and to listen carefully so as to know where and why they are hurting.

Their stories, Mr. Coles said, taught him about living and dying. Mr. Coles' owes his own success as a writer to his expert retelling of the stories of others.

Our lives are filled with stories, and then one day we are the story tellers, piecing together the past, binding the generations with family folklore.

When three generations of my family gather this weekend for Christmas, there will be the usual rituals. After the arrival of Santa Claus, the giving of gifts and the magical meal, we'll all settle down to the stories.

The word "remember" will drift about the room and bounce from teller to teller. The children will rest quietly for the first time and listen to the clear, smooth sounds of the past.

They'll hear stories about mothers and fathers and people who lived and died before they were born. Some of the older ones will see themselves as links in this long string of story tellers and will understand they are fashioning the stories of the future.

Our stories are what we gather on our journey. They validate our living and weave our lives together. They verify our caring as we laugh at ourselves and, yes, at each other. If the facts get confused, it doesn't matter because we will remember what we want to, and when we meet again there will be new tales to tell.

Betty Driscoll writes from Monkton.

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