The Significance of Stories

By B.F. McCune

The Significance of Stories
The Significance of Stories

Late one Christmas, my mother-in-law, Hazel, and I sat surrounded by holiday debris. I was feeling torn between nostalgia and melancholy. My son was to be married in the coming year; my father had passed away during the year prior.

The guests had abandoned us, and candles sputtered to darkness. No better time for confidences. For centuries the interval between day and dark has been the time parents tell stories to children, and the wise pass along their collective knowledge to the tribe. Tonight was no different.

So Hazel began:

My mother, Ellen, came to this country when still in her teens. The baby of the family, she emigrated at the wish of the three brothers who had preceded her. What was there back in Ireland but a farm with a few exhausted acres?

At about the same time my father emigrated from Ireland, too. He and my mother met and got married. Then the Depression came, when desperate men searched from town to town for a way to support themselves.

Our house lay on the route between the railroad tracks and the road out of the city. The tramps passed our house on their way to hitchhike to smaller towns.

The hobos developed a code. If someone would feed a traveler, a big blue “X” appeared on the house as a signal that others might get a meal there. Of course, our house was one of those so marked, and my mother never would allow my father to remove it. Maybe she recalled stories of the times of the Potato Famine in the old country, when people starved in the streets. In any case, she was determined always to give a meal to a man who needed it.

One day, the coldest of the year, came a knock at the door. My mother answered it, and there stood a man so skinny you could count the bones in his fingers and hands. The “raggediest” man I’d ever seen in my eight years. My eyes got bigger and bigger, round as marbles.

He stood shivering – no coat, no muffler or hat, a thin shirt with holes at the elbows. On his feet he wore a pair of shoes with rips in the toes and no socks. He crossed his arms across his chest to hug the warmth of his body close.

“Lady,” he said, “could you spare a man down on his luck some food?”

My mother brought him in, sat him at the table and began to put together a meal. While she scrambled eggs and heated coffee, she sent my older brother up to the attic where she stored discarded clothing. He returned with an armful of garments.

By this time the tramp was polishing off his meal. He wiped his mouth and stood to leave. “Thank you kindly,” he said.

“Sure and don’t be in such a mad hurry,” said she. “I have all these clothes taking up space. You’d do me a favor to relieve me of some.”

He put on several pairs of thick socks and a warm wool sweater only slightly frayed at the cuffs, wrapped a long scarf around his neck and drew a stocking cap low over his head. Then he threw his arms around my mother. With tears in his eyes, he said, “God will bless you, lady.” And he set off on his travels again.

My father always used to warn my mother against her practice. “Someday you’ll be sorry you let every Joe who passed by into the house,” he’d say.

But nothing stopped her. “It might be myself in the same situation someday,” she said. “I’ll never turn away one of these poor souls.” And she never did.

Back to the present; to Christmas night.

I’d known Grandma Ellen as a cantankerous old woman whose entire conversation revolved around the condition of her bowels or her living room paint. My children had never met her. Christmas night I learned what we’d missed.

When Hazel shared the story of her mother’s generosity, she gave me a gift even greater than Ellen’s to the hobo. She gave me a link to the past and a hope for the future.

For most of my life I didn’t recognize the significance of family stories. During my childhood, these were fascinating entertainment, the verbal equivalent of written fairy tales. I’d listen to my grandfather’s recollections of the camaraderie of troops in World War I, highlighted with off-key renditions of “Pack Up Your Troubles,” and illustrated with a faded photo of him in uniform.

But it wasn’t until death began its inexorable claims on the older members of my family, and my recognition of my eventual mortality, that I began to prize the ephemeral treasures I’d been given.

Each of us has a story – happy or sad, defeated or triumphant. The precise contents are immaterial. The importance lies in the telling. The impact of a life can continue even after that life’s over. Sharing stories of challenges, fears, regrets, successes and adventures expands our humanity.

How does this occur? Not in front of a television set. Not even at a baseball game or on a family hike. We must make time; take time to share these memories. Without conscious effort, our generation’s memories will fade as surely as the signs of cave dwellers and nomad tribes.

What stories do I want to pass on to my children? What is important for them to know? Which will link them to their ancestors through knowledge or love? Here are some:

Both sides of their family fostered frustrated writers for several generations. My grandfather was gassed in World War I and suffered from bad lungs all his life. Quotas for Jews in colleges forced my father to give up his dream of medicine as a career. As a young child, Hazel got lost at an amusement park. My daughter once saved a toddler from drowning. And, of course, great-grandma Ellen gave sustenance and hope to the homeless.

Hazel herself is now is only a memory, a story. But she gave me a priceless gift that Christmas night, one to outlast the fragility of mere skin and bones. That’s the significance of stories.

About this writer

  • B.F. McCune B.F. McCune is a freelance writer, married, mother of two and grandmother of two, currently in training for a bicycling vacation and entering numerous recipe contests in the hope of gaining a windfall. She has numerous credits in local, regional, and specialty publications for news and features, and is co-author of Recruiting and Managing Volunteers in Libraries (Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1995).

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7 Responses to “The Significance of Stories”

  1. Sheryl Exstrom says:

    Beautiful story Aunt Bonnie, brought tears to my eyes! We will have to sit down with my mom and go through old family photos, I love knowing about my heritage. Thank you :)

  2. Thanks, Bonnie. I remember most of the people you’ve mentioned and loved hearing their stories. What valuable parts of our heritage! It always saddens me when I think of how many of the stories we may have missed over the years.
    Kathy

  3. Colleen says:

    Bonnie,

    Thanks for this memory. I had pretty much forgotten about it. As you say, the Grandma Helen that I remember painted constantly and when she wasn’t painting, she was going to Skaggs to get a bargain on her meds. There certainly was more to her than that. Thanks for reminding me, and yes, I have thought about the stories we all have and those we have lost because we didn’t pay close enough atttention.

    Enjoyed this.

  4. margaret says:

    A simple thank you. We must remember to slow down in this busy thing we call life. Share our storeis so others may grow to a greater destiny. Love you sis

  5. Joy says:

    “The Significance of Stories” truly touched me. Ever since the birth of my grandson (now 3 years old), I have said that I want to write down everything about him so that I don’t forget: his funny words, hilarious comments and antics, touching moments we have shared and things we have done together, stories that we all can read and remember, and that he will always have as a link to his past. I have all these wonderful memories in my heart and my head, but have yet to put the first one in writing. Thanks to you, B. F. McCune, I am ready to begin. Perhaps I’ll do the same thing for my children, my sisters…….

  6. Hi Bonnie,
    I loved your emphasis on story and its importance for community.

  7. anita says:

    What a beautiful story that is — thanks for sharing it. It reminds me of stories my mother and father, also from Ireland, would tell me as a child. I will share them with my grandchildren and hope they love family stories as much as I do.

    Anita

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