Monday, November 23, 2015

A Story for Thanksgiving - The Least of These

My daughter Melanie and me, 1974
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this seems like a pertinent story to share. May you have a blessed Thanksgiving.

© Linda Goodman 2013

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.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Ghost Story for a Cold Winter Evening

Black Diamond

©Linda Goodman, January 2015
Painting by Mary Steenwyk

            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 something.
            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 dumbstruck.
            “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?” Daddy asked.
            “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 bred for.”
            “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 day out.
            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.”
And 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.

I 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.         

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Patchwork Tales: Making Stories from Story Fragments

By Linda Goodman

©Linda Goodman, 1/2015

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, and  I 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 days.

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 while.”

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.

The 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.

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.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Flash Fiction

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.
This is what I came up with:


Why Fire Trucks Are Red?
By Linda Goodman
©copyright Sept/1994

            My friend 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?”
            “Well,” he 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 floor.
            Kelly should have known better than to ask her father. He made a joke out of everything.
            So she asked her mother. “Mama, do you know why fire trucks are red?”
            Kelly’s 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.”
            Kelly knew that her mother’s answer was correct, but she did not think that it was the answer her teacher was looking for.
            Finally, Kelly asked the smartest person she knew: her grandmother. “Grandmama, can you tell me why fire trucks are red?”
            “Well sure 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?”
            “Yes, Grandmama, it is,” Kelly told her.
            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!
            Kelly 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.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Kind Coward at a Bigot’s Party

By Linda Goodman

©Linda Goodman 1988

The small black child looked up at me, eyes wide with fear.
“I’ve lost my mommy,” she said with quivering voice.
“Can you help me find her?”

My face burned as I felt around me the hostility of those who awaited my reaction.
“No, child, find her for yourself.”
My voice was cold.
(“Please go away, I begged silently”)

“Is she the cook’s child?” someone whispered.
“Can we send her to the kitchen?”

“Aw, go play in the street ‘til you Mama comes,” said a suave man in a three piece suit.
“The little uns just grow up to be big uns,” he said in an aside.

The room exploded with laughter.

I laughed, too.

For though my conscience tore my heart in two,
I could not summon the courage needed to banish the shame I felt.

Man’s inhumanity to man runs rampant               
Because cowards

Like me

Perpetuate it.

God help us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Of Men and Horses

In honor of Father's Day, I have invited my good friend Bob Wilson to be a guest blogger. I know his beautiful story about his father will move you as much as it did me.

By Robert Wilson
©Robert Wilson, 6/2015

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. 

Note from Linda Goodman: To read Name of Horses, by Donald Hall, go to I have never ridden a horse, but the poem made me love them. It brought tears to my eyes.

Robert (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 of Virginia.
Contact Robert at