Monthly posts to Tales from the Tapestry are written by Author/Storyteller/Playwright Linda Goodman. Linda is the author of Daughters of the Appalachians, which has been performed around the country both as a one-woman show and a play. She has been a professional storyteller since 1989. She is a Virgina Appalachian Mountain native of Melungeon descent.
Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of
these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
I remember when the economy crashed in 2008. Many people
lost their jobs and things looked bleak. People were scared, and rightfully so.
I was one of the lucky ones. When the company I was
working for went bankrupt, I was remembered by several former colleagues who
had segued into management elsewhere. I had made good impressions upon them,
and I received multiple job offers from them.
I ended up working in downtown Richmond. Every day on the
way from the bus stop to my job, I passed people who were holding signs that said
that they were hungry. I made it a habit to always carry dollar bills with me,
and, while trying not to draw attention, I gave one to each needy person I
passed. Well-meaning friends warned me that the money I gave would most likely
go to drugs or alcohol.
Their warning made me think back to 1969, when I was
hungry myself. I was unemployed and pregnant with my daughter. My husband
(now ex-husband) was a self-employed musician. We never knew if we would make
it from one paying gig to the next. At his gigs, my husband was usually treated
to meals by his fans, or the club where he was working. I was living on
Campbell's Soup for lunch and supper. I skipped breakfast.
A couple lived down the road from us, and I felt
compassion for them because neither of them was working. One of their parents
was helping out with the rent, "But we have no food," the wife told
me. "We're starving."
I had no money to help with their situation, but I had
stockpiled Campbell's Soup the last time I had found it on sale. I set aside
half of my soup cans and watched and waited for a few days, until I saw
the two of them leave their house together. Then I took the soup I had set
aside to their house and pushed each can through their mail slot. This way,
they would not know who their benefactor was, and they would not feel
embarrassed around me. Knowing that I was helping them made me feel good. I had
visions of their happiness when they came home and found the soup. They
would be ecstatic.
The next time I saw the two of them, they were agitated.
“Somebody put canned soup through our mail slot,” the man complained. “I don’t
mind somebody helping us out, but getting canned soup is an insult!”
I was in shock. “I like canned soup,” I told them. “I eat
it every day.”
“We’ll give the soup to you, then,” the woman offered.
“Frankly, I’d rather have nothing at all to eat than to have to eat canned
soup,” she added.
“If someone really wanted to help,” the man continued, “he
would have given us the cash and let us buy what we like.”
I went back home with the soup. I don’t think they ever
realized that I was the culprit. Throughout my pregnancy, I continued to eat
that soup. I was glad to have it, too.
My intentions towards the couple were honest and sincere,
just as my intentions towards the hungry people that I met in Richmond
were honest and sincere. Some of those hungry people may have felt that a
dollar was not enough. I have no way of knowing that.
What I do know is that my actions were motivated by
scripture, by my personal memories of being poor, and by my desire to help
those in dire straits. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus blesses those who come to the
aid of “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.” I see no reason to
cease doing so just because I don’t know to what use the aid will be put. That
is between the "least of these" and God.
In 1960, when I was just a youngun,
we lost our house in St. Paul, Virginia and moved into a shack in Esserville.
That shack belonged to my mamaw and papaw, and Mommy was mad because they made
us pay them rent. Daddy told her not to fret about it. He said that Mamaw and
Papaw had just as much right to make money off of their place as anyone else.
And the price they charged was fair. Daddy’s Army disability check was just
enough to pay it.
That shack was small, and so was the
piece of land it sat on. Daddy barely had room to plant a garden. We needed a
garden that would grow enough vegetables for Mommy to can them. We depended on
her canning to help get us through the cold, hard winter.
Geo Cassidy was our closest
neighbor. His piece of land was so big he needed a plow to work his garden. He
got a ton of vegetables out of it, but he never shared any of them. He was a
mean old cuss.
Our place didn’t have electricity,
but Geo’s place had it. He even had a television set. Brother Lee and me
sneaked onto his front porch and peeked in his front window one night to see this marvel of modern science. Geo
caught us, though, and chased us off with a shot gun. Daddy didn’t like that
and told old Geo as much. Geo said that the next time he caught us out there,
he would make that gun talk. Daddy just shook his head and told us not to go on
Geo’s property no more.
My Daddy was an electrician by
trade. He learned electricity when he was in the army during World War II. You
would think that my daddy would have made a lot of money, being an electrician
and all, but most folks around us didn’t have electricity. And them that did
couldn’t afford to pay somebody to fix it when it wasn’t working right. That’s
why we lost our house in St. Paul.
Geo Cassidy made a deal with my
daddy. He’d give Daddy vegetables from his garden in exchange for maintaining
the electricity in Geo’s house. They became friendly because of that, though
they were never really friends.
One Friday evening, Geo came running
like a banshee to our house, hollering for Daddy, “Ted! Ted!”
Daddy come running out to meet him,
me and Brother Lee right behind. We thought maybe there was a house fire or
Geo was breathing so hard he
couldn’t speak at first. Once he got his breath back, he told us to follow him
to his house. Said he had something he wanted to show us. We went with him back
to his barn, and when he opened it up, we saw a tall, muscular black horse
standing there, so beautiful and regal it took my breath away.
“Geo, where did you get such a
horse?” Daddy asked him.
Geo laughed, “I won him in a card
game, Ted. You know how Rufus Gilliam has them poker games in the back room of
his store of a Friday night? Well, I sat in on one of them games tonight. Some
rich feller from out of town was there, too, on his way to Kentucky with a race
horse he’d bought in Pennsylvania. He won’t real good at cards. Didn’t have a
poker face. And you know me. I’m the best poker player in town.”
“And he bet this horse?” Daddy was
“Had to,” Geo told him. “We’d
already played three games and he run out of all his money. He wanted a chance
at winning his money back, but I wouldn’t take a check nor an IOU, so he bet me
his horse. He said it’s an Arabian stallion. He said it was gonna be the fastest
horse the world ever saw…. He cried when
I won it from him, but he honored his bet.”
“So you aim to race this horse?”
“I don’t know nothing about racing
horses,” Geo admitted. “I aim to use him to plow my field.”
“But, Geo!” Daddy protested, “You
can’t use a show horse like this one to plow a field. That’s not what it was
“Well,” Geo responded, “I won’t bred
for it neither. My back is ruined from it. This horse will take a load off me.”
Daddy just shook his head, but
Brother Lee was hopping from one foot to the other, he was so excited. “Can I
pet him, Mr. Cassidy? What’s his name?”
“The man told me the horse’s name is
Ebony Prince. Go ahead and pet him, boy”
Lee ran his fingers through the
horse’s silky mane. “Ebony prince ain’t the right name for him,” he said.
“He sure is shiny,” Daddy observed.
“Like a shiny piece of black coal.”
Geo didn’t like that. “Coal is no
name for a horse.”
“But my teacher says that if enough
pressure is applied to a piece of coal, it can turn into a diamond,” Brother
Lee told them. “Why don’t we call him…. Black Diamond!”
Geo liked that, and Daddy did, too.
The next day, Black Diamond took to the plow.
I wish I could say that old Geo was
good to that horse, but he wasn’t. That proud animal didn’t like being hitched
up to a plow. It bucked and thrashed so bad that Geo took a whip to it. Brother
Lee cried every time that whip hit that horse’s back. One time he even begged
old Geo to stop, but that just made Geo whip that horse harder. He told Brother
Lee to mind his own business, or else he would take a whip to him, too. It took
a few weeks, but Geo finally broke Black Diamond. And I have to say it was a
sorry sight to see such a proud animal tugging and pulling that plow day in and
One day Brother Lee come home from
school with some fine news. Rufus Gilliam had offered him a part-time job at
his store. Lee had to get Daddy’s permission first, though. Daddy said it was okay, as long as Lee didn’t
let his school work get behind.
Rufus paid Brother Lee fifty cents a
day. Lee spent part of his first day’s pay on sugar cubes for Black Diamond. Geo
said he didn’t mind Brother Lee giving the horse treats, but he thought it was
a waste of good money.
“Mr. Cassidy,” Brother Lee replied,
“I ain’t wasting no money. I’m saving my money because I aim to buy Black
Diamond from you.”
Old Geo just laughed and laughed
when Lee said that. “You’re gonna buy my prize show horse, are ye? You can’t
even afford to buy a television set.”
Brother Lee paid no attention to all
that mocking from Geo. He went to work every day, and he saved every cent that
he could. That winter he used some of his money to help out Daddy, and he
continued to get a sugar cube for Black Diamond every single day. All the rest
of his money, though, went into a tin can that he kept under his bed. That was
the money he was saving for Black Diamond.
Every night when Brother Lee got
home from work, before he even had his supper, he’d go to Geo’s barn to see
that horse. One night he was out there with Black Diamond longer than usual,
and Mommy sent me to get him before his supper got cold. I tiptoed around the
corner of old Geo’s barn – I was fixing to make the sound of a ghost wind and
scare Brother Lee. But then I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks.
That horse had his long neck wrapped tight around Lee, and Lee had his arms
around Black Diamond’s neck. When I got closer, I seen tears running down Lee’s
cheeks. I thought he was hurt, and I screamed, “Daddy!” But Brother Lee said,
“SHUSH! Black Diamond ain’t hurting me. He’s hugging me.”
that’s when I seen that Brother Lee was smiling through those tears. It made me jealous. “Reckon you and
Black Diamond are bonded for life,” I told him.
“For life and beyond,” he responded.
“Ain’t nothing can separate me and Black Diamond.”
Time passes slow, and three years
went by before Brother Lee realized that he was never going to be able to save
enough money to buy Black Diamond. Shortly after that, in 1967, Brother Lee
graduated from high school. Old Geo told Lee that if he didn’t act fast, the
Army was going to draft him for Viet Nam. He advised Lee to join up with the
marines, because they would make a man out of him. I don’t know why Brother Lee
listened to old Geo, but he did. He went straight to the Marine Corps recruiter
right after his graduation.
The day Brother Lee packed and left for the
bus station, he went to say good bye to Black Diamond. The horse took the sugar
cube that Brother Lee offered him. Lee hugged his neck hard and sobbed like a little
baby, and once again Black Diamond wrapped his neck around Lee and hugged him
back. I swear, that horse had tears running down his face, too.
By this time, Black Diamond looked
far older than his years. His swayed back was scarred from all those whippings,
and he was missing big patches of his hair. He was so thin you could see his ribcage
poking out of his sides. He couldn’t pull a plow no more. But when he saw
Brother Lee walking away, something got into that horse. He ran into the middle
of the field and reared up on his hind legs, and then he ran like the wind and
jumped high over the fence that had held him prisoner, so graceful…… just like
the horse he was meant to be. I could see years dropping off his life in that
jump. I could the shiny black, muscular stallion he had been on the day old Geo
brought him home.
Daddy started to go after Black
Diamond, but old Geo called, “No! He aims to see your boy off. Let Black
Diamond go with him to the bus station. He’ll come on back when he’s of a mind
to. Suits me if he don’t come back at all. That horse is more trouble than he’s
worth these days.”
Sure enough, Black Diamond caught up
to Brother Lee at the big oak tree on the edge of our property. Lee stopped and
Black Diamond slowly knelt in front of him. Lee put one leg over Black
Diamond’s back and rode him bareback down the road that led to town.
Black Diamond was gone for two whole
days. Folks in town said they had to throw rocks at him to get him to go home.
Geo told Daddy that if he would fix his fence for him, he could have Black
Diamond. Daddy had no use for a starved out, beat down horse, but he did it for
Brother Lee. He knew it would mean the world to Brother Lee to see that horse when he
came home again.
Lee had left a sack of sugar cubes
with me, told me to give one to Black Diamond every day. When the sack was
empty, Daddy took it to Gilliam’s General Store and Rufus filled it up again.
Wouldn’t let my Daddy pay for it. Rufus said it was the least he could do to
help a brave, young boy who was serving his country.
In September, after he finished boot
camp, Brother Lee got his orders for Viet Nam. He could have come home to visit
before shipping out, but instead he sent Daddy the money he would have paid for
a bus ticket. Brother Lee knew that a hard winter was coming, and Daddy would
need that money to feed the family.
One night, August 18, 1969 it was, Black
Diamond took to crying and fretting, and there was nothing anybody could do to
calm him down. He made so much noise that old Geo threatened to shoot him.
Daddy got his own gun out then and told Geo that if he was gonna shoot Black
Diamond, he better shoot to kill, cause that was what Daddy aimed to do to old
Geo. Geo backed off then and went back to his house. “You Melungeons is crazy!”
he snarled. Never spoke to Daddy again.
Three days later, a black car pulled
up to that little shack we lived in. Two men in Marine Corps dress blues
stepped out of it. One of them patted my daddy on the back and handed him a
telegram. As I watched Daddy fall to his
knees, Mommy come running out of the house crying, “No! No!” And Black
Diamond…. He was howling like a banshee. His pain pierced my ears and cut me
right to the bone.
Later, Daddy told me what had
happened. On August 18, Lee was riding in the back of a supply truck that
stopped to pick up a fellow marine. That fellow threw his jacket into the back
of the truck without realizing that that there was a grenade with a loose pen
in the jacket’s pocket. Everybody in the back of that truck was killed. Poor Brother
Lee never knew what happened.
After that, Black Diamond wouldn’t
take any food, not even a sugar cube, from nobody. No matter what I said or did, that horse
wouldn’t eat a bite. He just got weaker and weaker until, early one morning, my
daddy found him dead in the field, under that big oak tree on the edge of our
property, where he had said good bye to Brother Lee.
On the night of August 18, 1970, I
had a hard time sleeping, it being the first anniversary of Brother Lee’s death
and all. There was a full moon so bright that it looked like daylight in our
little shack. And there was a hoot owl by my window that wouldn’t keep quiet. I
never went outside after dark, but that night I felt the pull of the moon, and
I walked out the door and into the field. Up I stared at that full moon, so
beautiful it made me dizzy. But then I heard the rustle of the wind through the
leaves of that old oak tree, and I turned to see its silhouette against the
moon… There was something under that tree, but I could not make out what it was.
I walked closer and saw the silhouettes of a young man and a horse. The man had
his arms wrapped around the horse’s neck, and the horse had his long graceful
neck wrapped about the man’s body. I walked still closer, until I could see
that the horse was Black Diamond with his youth, strength and beauty restored
to him. And the young man was Brother Lee, standing proud and strong in his
Marine Corp dress blues. He looked happier than I had ever seen him. At first I thought they were real, that they
had somehow come back from the dead. But then, just as I was about to reach out
and touch my brother, they just disappeared into thin air, like a mirage.
I don’t live in that shack anymore.
I moved in with my cousin Dulcie in Portsmouth, Virginia after Mommy and Daddy
died. Got me a job as a bookkeeper for Flower’s Bakery. Jobs are easier to get
in the city.
still keep in touch with friends in Wise County. They tell me that there are
some folks that claim to see a young marine riding bareback on a beautiful
black horse under the full moon, on the road that runs past that old shack in
Esserville. I tell them that when my time comes, I aim to go there on a night
of the full moon and see if they will let me hitch a ride. Then we’ll all ride
together to that place where tears are no longer, and dreams are always sweet.
I have hundreds of story fragments
(concepts, memories, story starters) running through my head. Every so often,
two or more of them collide and a story is born. Those are usually the easiest
stories to write. I feel like I am taking dictation.
Sometimes, though, the collision
never happens. That means work is required.
After both my parents had passed
away, I began telling an anecdote (fragment
#1) at family reunions about the first (and only) time that my Daddy every
punished me. My Mama, the disciplinarian in our home, was so mad at me that she
did not trust herself to administer my punishment. She ordered Daddy to do it
for her. To my surprise, he agreed and took me into the back bedroom and shut
the door. I was scared, but even worse, I was humiliated. Daddy had never laid
a hand on a child. I would be the first child to have ever been bad enough for
him to have to hit.
I readied myself for the blow, but
it never came. Instead, Daddy whispered to me to start crying, andI did. Meanwhile, he clapped his hands
together hard for about thirty seconds. We did a good job of simulating the
sounds of a whipping. In fact, we were so convincing that when Daddy and I came
out of that room, Mama wrapped her arms around me and cried, “My baby!” Then
she hollered at Daddy for hitting me too hard. She did not speak to him for
Whenever I told this anecdote at
family gatherings, folks howled with laughter. I decided to take this anecdote
to the stage. Before I could do that, though, I had to turn it into a real
story. My family laughed at the anecdote because they remembered Mama and Daddy
well. My family also knew the context surrounding my story. My storytelling
audiences would not have that context. I had to create it for them.
I asked myself why I wanted to share
that story. Daddy was a man of great integrity. Why did he choose to make a
fool out of Mama? That was totally out of character for him.
Pondering this issue brought back a
memory (fragment #2) of overhearing
Mama tell Daddy that we children loved him more than we loved her. Daddy told
her that was nonsense. “They don’t love me more than they love you,” he
insisted. “It’s just that you’re so stern all the time, they’re afraid to show
you any affection. It wouldn’t hurt you to show a little compassion once in a
Why was Mama so mad to begin with?
That question brought forth another memory (fragment
#3): I had asked Mama if I could go home with my friend Cathy after school
that day. She had answered NO! I went anyway. I knew in advance what the
consequences be. That is, I knew until Daddy was brought into the equation.
Why did he so readily offer to whip
me? To make a fool out of the woman he loved and respected most? Or was this his
effort to get her to show some compassion to one of her children?
This is where storytelling meets
interpretation. I thought back to when I walked out of that room, crocodile
tears running down my cheeks, and was met by Mama’s arms, wrapping around me
and holding me close. That was the first hug I had ever received from Mama (fragment #4). I don’t know if Daddy
planned for that to happen, but in my mind, he did. Because of the hug that
resulted from that fake punishment, Mama and I became close. I stopped
purposely doing things that I knew would make her mad, and I started to care
about her feelings.
This fourth fragment was the key that unlocked the story.The anecdote about the first time Daddy ever
punished me had morphed into being the story of the first time Mama ever hugged
me. Titled The Punishment, the story became a tool to illustrate the power
of compassion over the power of force.
Punishment is also one of the tools I use to
teach my writing process to participants in my workshop Patchwork Tales: Making Stories from Story Fragments. Everyone has
story fragments. Finding the fragments that match up to make a story, much like
making a patchwork quilt, can be challenging. It also requires patience when
the fragments cannot be matched so easily. Finding the key that unlocked the story to which my anecdote belonged took me almost
a year. Once the key was found, however, the story flowed beautifully. In 2014,
it received a Winner Award for Tellable
Adult Stories from Storytelling World.
What fragments are hanging around in
your head? Those that make you feel nothing are dead weight. Instead of
focusing on them, concentrate on the ones that make you feel an emotion. Which
ones give you the warm fuzzies? Which ones scare you? Which ones make you mad?
Which ones make you cry? They are the fragments that are seeds for what could
be great stories. These fragments are pure storytelling gold.
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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 naïve 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.
When I was living in Massachusetts in the mid 1990s, I was
invited to be one of the featured storytellers at the New England Modern
Storytelling Festival in Windsor, Maine. One of the venues in which I was going
to be participating was called Flash Fiction. We were advised that our stories
could be no more than four minutes long and that people in the audience would
be expecting to laugh.
This was a dilemma for me. My average story was twenty
minutes long, and, at that time, serious stories were my trademark. Two days
before I had to leave for the festival, I still did not have a four minute,
funny story. I was about to panic, when I remembered a joke that my friend
Cathy told me when we were in the third grade. That joke, I realized, would
make a great middle for a story. I just had to add a beginning and an end.
Kelly is in the second grade, and last week she came home with an unusual
homework assignment. She had to find out why fire trucks are red.
Kelly needed some help, and
the first person she asked was her father. “Daddy, can you tell me why fire trucks are red?”
chortled, “ They’re red…..hahaha….THEY’RE RED BECAUSE THEY’RE EMBARRASSED!” He
laughed so hard he had to lean on the refrigerator to keep from falling on the
should have known better than to ask her father. He made a joke out of
asked her mother. “Mama, do you know why fire trucks are red?”
mother was the no nonsense type. She turned to Kelly with both hands on her hips
and said, “They’re red because somebody painted them that color.”
that her mother’s answer was correct, but she did not think that it was the
answer her teacher was looking for.
Kelly asked the smartest person she knew: her grandmother. “Grandmama, can you
tell me why fire trucks are red?”
I can,” her grandmother assured her. “That’s right easy, actually. It’s like
this: One plus one is two, and two plus two is four. Four times three is twelve….
That’s right isn’t it?”
Grandmama, it is,” Kelly told her.
grandmother nodded and said, “I thought so,” before continuing, “Now twelve
inches is a foot, and last week I went to the hardware store and bought myself
a foot ruler…. now let me see…. Queen Mary was a ruler…. and so was Queen
Elizabeth. And Queen Elizabeth was also the name of a ship….a ship that sailed
the seven seas. And what is in the seven seas? FISH! And every single one of
those fish have fins…. The fins, now, they got uppity and went off to fight the
Russians…. and the Russians are also called Reds. And fire trucks are always rushin’.
AND THAT’S WHY FIRE TRUCKS ARE RED!
liked her grandmother’s answer best, and that’s the one that she turned in to
her teacher the next day. And guess what! She got an A!
I told that story on the Flash Fiction stage, and it was a
huge hit. The audience howled, and I felt great getting laughter for a change. Now
I have numerous former jokes turned story in my storytelling arsenal. It’s a
good trick to have up your sleeve. By the way - it's in the delivery.
My father was a man of principle.
He didn’t smoke, or drink alcohol (although he could swear with the best). He also was unwavering in his belief that a man should be honest in all
his dealings and keep his word, no matter what. My dad loved farming, and
he was an excellent farmer. He also had a deep love for draft horses,
keeping a matched team of Belgian geldings and a Percheron mare long after the
area farmers had started using tractors exclusively. At my mother’s
urging, dad bought a grocery store and a house in town, but he kept the farm
and spent as much time there as possible. One day, when we were cleaning
out a fence row next to the road, a realtor drove up. He told dad that he
had a client looking for a farm to buy. Although he didn’t know dad, his
prospect knew of the farm and he was interested in making an offer. The
realtor asked dad how much he wanted for the farm. Dad told him that he
wasn’t interested in selling.
The realtor was persistent. At
least once a week he would catch dad at the grocery store or at the farm and
badger him to set a price on the farm. One day, out of frustration, dad
set a price that he thought was higher than anyone would pay for the farm.
The realtor’s client accepted the price dad set. Dad felt that he
had no choice but to sell him the farm. Mother was thrilled, but
dad’s spirit never recovered.
Several years later, dad visited me
in Indianapolis to go to the Indiana State Fair. In Indiana, we had
county fairs that were bigger than the state fairs in many eastern states.
We were going to the state fair to see the horses and dairy cattle and go
to the Grand Circuit Harness Races. Dad didn’t bet on races, but he loved
to see the trotters and pacers compete. That day, as a bonus, the
Budweiser Clydesdales were going to appear in an eight-horse hitch.
Before we took our seats in the
grandstand, we walked through the horse barns, and we noticed that the 10
Clydesdales (8 for the hitch plus 2 alternates) were housed under a separate
tent. There was a sign with the horse’s name over each stall. Dad
would read the name of a horse, say it out loud, then carefully examine the
horse from every angle, say the name again, and then move on to the next horse
and go through the same routine.
Before the first race, the
eight-horse hitch came trotting down the main stretch in front of the stands.
Dad named every horse and it’s position in the hitch, and then turned to
me, beaming, and named the two horses that weren’t in the hitch. Dad was
animated and happy the rest of the day. That was the first time I had
seen my dad happy in years, and it was the last. Every time I read Name
of Horses, by Donald Hall, I think of my father.
(Bob) Wilson was an Indiana farm boy with an adventurious
spirit. After high school, he sought travel and experiences. Bob toured
the U.S. as a professional actor, he was an instructor and the first
writer/director for the Army Air Defense School’s Educational TV Network.
After the Army, he became a specialist in designing and implementing
large scale IT systems, eventually retiring as the Principle Systems Analyst
for Advanced Technology Systems. Now retired, Bob has returned to his
first love, the theatre, working with community theatres in the Northern Neck