Stories have been a staple in my life from the time I was a child. My dad told stories at the dinner table, in the living room when there wasn’t anything good to watch on television, driving down the road, at family gatherings — everywhere.
My father’s family had a talent for spinning tales about their lives in the Ozark Mountains of southeastern Missouri during the 1940s through 1960s. Those stories traveled with them when they moved up to Nebraska, where I live now, and any time we got together, a story was told.
Dad’s family was poor, the kind of poor where they lived on beans and cornbread most of the time, and the kids went without shoes in the summertime. Photos of them from that time resemble Dorothea Lange’s photos from the Depression Era, except they were taken ten to twenty years later when most of the country had improved its circumstances. My family was still in poverty. My grandfather was illiterate and times were hard. But they found humor in their lives and the stories were funny, uproarious even. How else could they cope with the dreariness of being so poor?
As I grew up, our family in Nebraska got together for storytelling and I remember a lot of “hoopin’ and a’hollerin'”, which is what we call laughing and shouting. No story was too crazy to be believed, either. You didn’t need to back it up with facts, just “flour it up” with a few funny additions until we’re all rolling on the floor laughing. That’s all we ask.
When my aunt and uncles and my dad got together, I swear the roof lifted off the top of our house, they were so loud. (That’s an example of “flouring it up”.) Each one talked louder than the other, trying to get to tell the story. We laughed until our sides hurt and our throats were sore.
Here’s a good old story about my Grandpa Gabe, who had a real flair for drama but no tolerance for nonsense:
Somehow, he and his brother, Abe, (Yes, Gabe and Abe–I don’t make this stuff up, folks) and maybe their father, Homer, got their hands on some dynamite. They wanted to get rid of an old stump on their property. So they got the whole thing set up, dynamite ready.
Someone warned them they were using too much powder for a little old stump, but pshaw! Grandpa scoffed. They knew what they were doing. So they set it off and POW! The dynamite went off, the stump flew into the air and soared right over my Grandpa’s house!
Grandpa was watching, his eyes following the stump, and his head tilted back. As the stump arched, so did Grandpa. It went up, he leaned back, it flew over the house, he leaned farther.
Suddenly, BAM! He landed flat of his back. My Grandpa was a cranky old man, and landing on his back was not at all funny to HIM. It was hilarious to his kids, who laughed themselves silly.
And that’s how you turn a simple stump removal into a “story.” And EVERY time someone tells that story, we all laugh until tears fall.
Those old stories are like favorite books to me. I ask my dad to tell me “the one about the time a tornado was coming and you all hid in the storm cellar,” or “about the time you came home from school and they had moved to a different house.” I have a lot of favorites, and Dad is always willing to tell me one.
And that’s how the granddaughter of a man from the Ozarks found a love for telling stories. He never read a book in his life, but he and my grandmother, and their children passed along a huge appreciation of the art of storytelling to my generation. I sincerely doubt I can ever capture their flair for reliving a story, but they inspired me to write and I love them for it.