Her hair was white, her hands thin and blue-veined. She sat quietly in the audience, listening as I told stories, my friend Heidi Muller played her dulcimer we both sang. I didn't notice the lady particularly; she was just one of about 75 people attending the Road Scholar workshops. Heidi was teaching dulcimer class and I joined her in the evening to provide entertainment for the group.
We wove our stories and songs together; a song of longing for home was followed by a discussion of home and place and why it has such a pull on people, particularly West Virginians. Then we moved on to Heidi's song about seeing things--traveling back to a place and finding it much changed but still seeing it as it was. I followed with some short memories my husband had shared with me about growing up in a coal camp, funny and poignant, and then told his story of the Headless Woman of Briar Creek.
We alternated back and forth throughout the program with one story leading to a song and then to another story, and this time Heidi offered her song of a girl growing up. That led into my story of my parents and how they met during World War II and how my mother, at age 18, left her home in England to come to America and her new husband. The program continued with stories and songs weaving together a tapestry of memories, history, humor and family.
At its end the white-haired woman approached me with tears on her cheeks.
"Thank you. Thank you so much for that. My family never told stories. My father was in World War I but he never spoke of it, never told us about his experience. My mother never told us stories, either, and yet I know that as a girl out on the western plains she must have had stories. My family just doesn't talk. Thank you, thank you so much."
My family doesn't talk. What poignant words. How many families are like hers, rushing through life without looking back and remembering? Stories, our stories, tell us about ourselves: where we came from and why, about our heritage and the ethics and values that drove our forebears. Stories ground us and give us a firm foundation on which to move forward. Not telling them means the stories will be lost to future generations. My heart ached for this lady. She realized what she had missed, and what was lost forever now that her parents are gone.
I suggested that when she goes home, she immediately call her children and say, "I want to tell you about my childhood, about how I grew up. Did you know your grandfather was in World War I? Did you know Grandma lived in a sod house? There are stories I want you to hear so you will know where you come from." She promised to make that call.
It is my hope that all of my audiences return home with a fresh understanding of the importance of telling their family stories and passing down the history, the memories and the strength of their ancestors. I often have people tell me after a performance that my stories reminded them of something that happened to them, or a story someone in their family told them, and I urge them to be sure to pass that story down. That is my goal; in this one program, I know that at least one person got the message, and that perhaps one family is now hearing the stories of their heritage.