Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Stories Are The Foundation

            I grew up on stories and no one ever got around to weaning me away from a good tale, well told.  Some of the stories came from books, ranging from the Little Golden Books that my parents bought me each week at the supermarket or traditional classic fairy tales.  I listened to the elders, my grandparents, other relatives, friends of my parents, and neighbors.   When some of the other kids might become bored, my attention remained riveted.   I liked them all, the stories, whether they described growing up in another time or were just made up foolishness.  I loved the family legends handed down through the generations and I enjoyed the stories passed through centuries, true folk tales.

            Long before I heard about that famous cat in his red and white striped hat, about Heidi or about girl detective Nancy Drew, I knew that my Granny’s father grew up near Eckington in Derbyshire in England.  I heard the stories of how he grew up, child of servants, and became an apprentice who was then impressed into Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Royal Navy.   He served his years aboard ship before leaving from a Canadian port to join his brothers who had emigrated to Missouri to work for the railroad.  Without an official discharge in hand, I suspect he would have been hanged if they caught with him but he lived out his life far from the place of his birth.

            I also listened to tales of how my Granny’s grandfather and his father left Ireland during the Great Famine, the sole two survivors of their family.  He settled in northwest Missouri, in a area with rolling hills and fertile soil that some say is similar to parts of Ireland.   He came from what is now called Northern Ireland, from County Armagh near a little town called Keady.  One of my favorite singers, Tommy Makem, also hailed from that same place. 

            My Pop’s stories centered on outlaws like Jesse James who died a sudden, violent death in St. Joseph, Missouri at the hands of a friend.  Pop once chatted with Clyde Barrow as they got haircuts together and he was an early tourist to Rockaway Beach, near Branson.  In the 1920’s Rockaway was the hot spot and Branson just the place with the nearest train station.  One of the other summer visitors who liked the remote place was a furniture dealer named Al Brown.  Most people know him better as Al Capone.

            Since I spent a very large part of my earliest years in the company of my paternal grandparents, Granny and Pop, I gained an image of their youth. Beyond the exciting tales of family history and the wrong side of the law, I learned about St. Joseph in its heyday.   Both were born before 1900 and grew up in an age that became almost as familiar to me as my own.   The 1920’s that roared across America and around the world were “their time”, the salad days of their youth.   Long before I set foot into a classroom or studied American history, I heard tales of speakeasies, boot leg whiskey, airplanes, automobiles and gangsters.

            At the time, I spent my childhood in the same area of my hometown, in a neighborhood not so far removed from some of the settings in the stories.   Relatives still lived there and some continued until almost the present.   In my historical romance upcoming from Rebel Ink coming out June 3, Guy’s Angel, I drew background from some of those old tales.  Although my story is fiction, the time and place are drawn from fact.  To augment oral history, I also did research which confirmed in every instance how accurate the family stories are.  My Granny told her tales with accuracy, so well that everything she every told me can now be backed with fact.

            Other hand me down stories included – most of them with truth I can confirm – the feuding Hatfield clan, poet Eugene Field, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings,  the Earl of Montrose, the Revolutionary War, Civil War, the Oregon trail, and the Nazi death camps.

            Those represent just a few of the stories I heard as a child.  My cousins call me ‘the keeper of the family fire’ because I’m the one who listened and I remember.  I’m the one that their children and now even grandchildren seek out when they want to know about the family.  I have the stories and for most of them, I also have the factual documentation to prove the tales were true.  I am the next in a long line of people who kept alive oral traditions, not just the stories about kinfolk but the traditional songs and stories as well.

            I sang my babies to sleep with songs older than the United States of America, songs dubbed ‘the Child Ballads’ not because they were just for kids but because a professor named Child collected them in the British Isles so that they would not be lost.  A few I learned from recordings made by Alan Lomax but most were sung to me as my Granny rocked me to sleep as a small child.

            Stories are the inspiration that fuels me as a writer.  Without the stories, the ones told to me as a child, the ones read to me, the ones I read for myself or watched on either television or at the movies, I might not be able to tell stories of my own.

            Story is a foundation laid for me and I build my own tales on that sturdy beginning.

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