Intro: I just received a copy of Gary Taxali’s wonderful new children’s book, This is Silly! Gary is an illustrator and writer in Toronto–and my nephew. I posted a note on Facebook to congratulate him. I reminisced about the amazing artistic ability he demonstrated as a kid of seven when he illustrated one of the stories I used to tell about an imaginary character named Uncle Cleosophus. That sparked a conversation among the cousins about the stories, and I promised to share with you, not the stories themselves, but a story I’ve been performing in recent years about the telling of the stories. Enjoy.
Uncle Cleosophus Stories, Retold
When my sons were young, I liked to tell them stories. Now that they have children of their own, I like to tell stories to my grandchildren. But as all of you know who have told stories to little ones you love, it’s an enterprise fraught with difficulties.
It’s almost her bedtime when my granddaughter Riley asks, “Grammie, Tell us a story, an Uncle Cleosophus story. Tell us the same story you told last night.”
And her little sister, Alix Lily, chimes in: “Yes, tell us exactly the same story you told last night.”
Their father, my son, shoots me a warning glance. “Mom, can you keep it short? The girls gotta get to sleep early if we’re going to the track for the buffet breakfast.”
My granddaughters have been chattering all day to their cousins, Alexa and Gabriela, who are also visiting: “We always wave when the horses go by. Sometimes the riders wave back. Girl riders are the best. I might be a rider when I grow up. Once I touched a real live racehorse on its nose.”
I nod to acknowledge my son’s concerns, and soon I’m sitting in front of four little girls curled up on the inflatable bed in the basement play room, waiting for a story. Not from my repertoire of fairy tales, but a made-up on-the-spot story like I used to tell my sons and their cousins years ago. I don’t flatter myself about the reason for the appeal of these stories: it’s not the fabulous setting, characters, or plot. The children listening are always super heroes in the story. It’s a can’t fail formula.
The girls fire off suggestions. “Make it exactly the same, but make the ending different. And this time, ALL of us want ALL of the super powers!”
Years ago, each child had only one super power. I hesitate. But if it pleases them…why not?
Alexa, who is only three, solemnly pushes her nose to make sure her imaginary wings still pop out properly.
“And remember,” says Riley. I want to be able to fly too. But I don’t want wings. I fly like Superman.” She shows me how she flies with her arms pinned to her sides. I think her arms should be outstretched, but she’s not convinced. Alix Lily wants wings like her cousin Alexa. But Gabriela is undecided. Does she want wings? Does she want to fly like Superman? Or does she want jets in the back of her feet so she can fly standing up? We talk about the advantages and disadvantages of wings. For one thing, it’s easier to hold the bad guys. And wings are beautiful. Especially if they’re pink and sparkly. But wings tend to bump into things—and that can hurt.
I begin the story…
One night, Riley and Alix Lily and their cousins Gabriela and Alexa are all together visiting Grammie Margaret and Grandpa Jay. Suddenly, just at bedtime, the phone rings. It’s Uncle Cleosophus, and he wants to speak to Riley.
“I have a problem, and I need your help,” he says. “Can you and Alix Lily and your cousins come right away to Philadelphia?”
Gabriela adds: “Don’t forget the part where Grandpa says, ‘Who’s Uncle Cleosophus?’”
And the four of them dissolve in giggles over this apparently hilarious part of the story.
Riley makes peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches for everyone to take on the trip, except for Alix Lily, who doesn’t like peanut butter. She makes fluff sandwiches for her.
Gabriela speaks up: “We don’t want peanut butter either. Can we have jam?”
Alexa says, “I only like grape jam and blueberry jam.”
I promise, “OK, Riley will make you grape jam sandwiches.” They talk about sandwiches for awhile.
I try to move the story along.
Uncle Cleosophus meets the girls at the airport and drives them to his octagonal house where they go straight away to the spiral staircase that leads to the tower in the middle of the house where they do all their super thinking.
Riley asks, “Why do we always go to the room in the tower?”
“Well”, I reply.” “It’s cozy, and, besides [I’m trying to come up with something plausible] that’s where you all get your magical powers.”
Alix Lily looks at me, shocked. This specific detail will require a digression of several minutes. I had never mentioned before that they didn’t have their magical powers all the time. It seems all wrong to her. And unnecessary. And let’s change that part.
I tell them I’ll consider it.
Uncle Cleosophus explains the problem: Zoomhilda, the fastest racehorse in Philadelphia and probably in the world, the horse that seems to fly around the track, has disappeared. And so has her jockey, Annabelle Jones, the best jockey in the world.
Alix Lily has some important suggestions: “Let’s change the story. This time Zoomhilda doesn’t go to rescue her sister, Jazzyhilda. This time she gets captured by a bad guy and gets locked up in a secret place and we have to rescue her.”
Gabriela says, “But can we still go to the magic island with all the candy cane trees and marshmallow flowers and the unicorns?”
I promise not to forget about the Island—when we get to that part of the story. Somebody, Riley I think, adds, “the mud holes could be chocolate pudding!” They all like that idea.
“But we could have healthy food too, like broccoli trees,” I suggest. I’m trying to be a forward-thinking, healthy-food-conscious grandmother.
“Grammie, nobody wants broccoli trees!”
Little Alexa earnestly asks, “Can we have calamari? And olives?”
Who would believe a three year old wants olives in her stories? Now, so far, all we’ve got done is the standard Uncle Cleosophus opening and negotiated a few details. I’m losing track of this story, and I worry that I need to pick up the pace if I’m going to have them asleep before midnight.
“Anyway,” I continue. “That night, Mr. Bad Walter Guy returns to the racetrack…”
“Grammie,” says Riley. “Don’t you remember? His name isn’t Mr. Bad Walter Guy. It’s just Bad Walter Guy!”
How silly of me to presume to change one word of this gem of a story.
Alexa and Alix Lily practice jumping on the bed. They wonder if it would be helpful if they act out the story for me so I won’t forget so much. Riley and Gabriela, older and far more mature, think they are being silly. But a little jumping and blanket flinging would be ok.
“Don’t stop telling the story. We’re all listening,” Riley adds as she piles up pillows and blankets on one end of the bed to make a softer landing place.
Time passes. As I recall, my son comes downstairs to remind me that the girls will be cranky the next day if they don’t get any sleep. He listens for awhile. Much later, when I go upstairs, he takes me aside and says to me gently:
“Mom, it might be hard for them to fall asleep while you tell the story if they’re jumping on the bed.”
He has a point there.
“And,” he pauses while he considers how best to tell me that he’s concerned about the breakdown in traditions. “They’re not allowed to change the story. That’s not the way the Uncle Cleosophus stories work.” He frowns a little, “Should I have a talk with them? I can tell them for you: They are only allowed one super power each!”
Ah, I’ve become soft, and the stories will never be the same. Nevertheless, I’d like to think the Uncle Cleosophus traditions endure–in a fashion. In any case, as I recall, there was always quite a bit of jumping on the bed, even in the good old days. And my sons turned out well, despite me.
There is a postscript to this story. My son sent an email to his brothers.
My oldest son shot a note to me within the hour. “Mom, you can’t be so soft. Stick to your guns. Definitely do not allow this variation! Only one super power per kid. And what’s with this business of acquiring super powers in the tower room? That’s never been part of the story. On that , I side with Alix Lily. But only on that.”
Before the day was over, I heard from my youngest. He sided with his brothers.
Copyright August 22, 2005, by Margaret French