Some of my favorite memories as a child are of sitting on the sofa beside my grandmother as she shared stories of her life. Having spent a good portion of her childhood in an orphanage, she spun tales that seemed exotic – far removed from the relatively dull life I lived growing up on a Michigan farm.
Take for instance, the one about the time that, curious to see whether nuns really shaved their heads as was rumored, she pulled off one of the stiff black habits. She was rewarded for this experiment with what she described as the whipping of a lifetime.
“I didn’t shed a tear,” she told me. “And when the nun had finished beating me, I told her, ‘Thank you, Sister, just as nice as you please.”
I snuggled closer to her and rested my head on her plump arm, awed at her courage and rebelliousness, amazed that this cookie-baking, matronly woman had been such a spitfire.
There were tales of deer hunting in the North Woods, of living a tent for weeks at a time until Grandpa had shot and butchered out enough meat to last over the winter. She told me about berry picking excursions in the summer, about the time Grandpa had lumbered through the brush growling like a bear and half scaring her out of her wits. Churning butter, shelling peas, learning how to make lace and quilts, polishing 50 pairs of shoes each night at the orphanage, all were grist for her mill.
She told me about when she and Grandpa had first met at the candy store when she had worked as a teenager. My grandmother described the tin roof sundae he had ordered, right down to the shape of the dollop of whipped cream she had placed on the top of it.
I delighted, not only in the stories themselves, but also in the ritual pleading required in order to get her to open up. “Grandma, please tell me a story,” I would say. “You don’t want to hear the boring details of my life,” she would reply and concentrate on rolling out her piecrust.
“Just one,” I would beg. “A little one.” For a while she would pretend to ignore me, letting my anticipation build. And then, just as I my hopes wore thin, she would dust the flour from her hands. “I suppose I could use a little rest. Which is it you want to hear?”
It didn’t matter – I loved them all, no matter how many times I had heard them.
Perhaps the details of my grandmother’s life had seemed mundane to her as she was living them, but in the telling, she polished the commonplace and infused it with meaning until it glowed for both of us.
Now that my first grandchild has arrived, I sift through the events of my own ordinary life, much as I once sorted through my grandmother’s button box. Looking for the quirky shape, the striking color, the eye-catching design, I seek the raw material to continue what she began so many years ago.
Before I have occasion to voice the first “Once Upon a Time,” suddenly a childhood spent turning endless rows of Navy beans with a pitchfork, dehorning cattle, and getting lost in a cornfield – a childhood I’d considered ordinary – seems ripe with possibility.
The miracle of story begins.