More Posts More Often

My son Paul says that if I’m going to have a blog, I’ve got to post more often. He seems to like what I’ve done so far, but he says, “Once a month or so just won’t cut it. If people like what you write, they want something new when they revisit your site.”

He’s probably right.  He often is. Gotta admit,  I like writing this blog and I love your responses.  Last week I had a fair-to-middling excuse for not writing. I was in Virginia, helping my step-daughter and her husband who have a gorgeous new baby boy.  But most of the time,  I’m just lazy and easily distracted.

Recently I wrote Sunday Mornings,  a story about sitting with a woman with Alzheimer’s. Mel Davenport, a storyteller from Texas, a woman I’ve never met, not only sent a kind email but sent me a copy of her book, My Part of the Sky.

For you story lovers, the title refers to an old story about a little bird who fears that the sky is falling . He lies flat on the ground, feet stuck  up in the air. A passing elephant asks why. The bird replies that he’s holding up the sky.  The elephant reminds him that he’s not big enough.  The bird says, ” I know…but at least I can do my part.”

The book is Mel’s account of taking care of her mother, dying from Alzheimer’s. I was touched by this generous gift from a woman I’ve never met. And I was touched by her story.  She chose the impossible task that so many others also assume, to do their part to hold up the sky. She wrote an inscription in the copy of the book she sent me, “Keep telling the story until a cure is found.”

Thank you Mel.

Amazing, extraordinary, wonderful that I can sit down at my computer and be connected with the world. Reason enough for more posts, more often.

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On Becoming A Saratoga Treasure

Betty McCanty

The first time my husband Jay heard Betty McCanty tell a story, he turned to me and said,

“Now, that’s how you should tell a story.  She’s wonderful!”

I consoled myself, a little, by reminding myself that she’s been doing it longer than I. Betty took up storytelling after she retired as a high school English teacher—and has been telling and teaching storytellers for more than 25 years.  Telling wonderful stories about King Arthur and the loathly lady, about the time she walked over a frozen Niagara Falls, about her crush on a baseball star next door, about reckless boys who went swimming in a water tower, about fiddle music in the dusty thirties, about the Adirondacks.

You’re going to want to hear her stories. And you can—if you live anywhere near Saratoga.  On Monday, September 13th, at 7 pm, Betty McCanty will be the featured teller at Caffè Lena.

For Mother’s Day, Saratoga Today published an article about her, for she is not only a popular storyteller, she is also 87 years old and a beloved mother of eight, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

On Caffè Lena’s website, she is called a Saratoga treasure. I called her today to ask how she felt about being called a “treasure.”

“I loved it,” she said, and laughed.

She went on, “I only heard the word applied to a storyteller once before.  That was years ago in Toronto, at a storytelling festival. After the woman was introduced, she told a traditional Irish tale that was dreary, full of blood, and lasted an hour. If that was what being a treasure meant, it was to be avoided at all cost.” She laughed again.

From my own perspective, the word treasure fits Betty perfectly.  She is a woman full of life, humor, modesty, wit, and humanity. Actually, she is who I want to be when I grow up.

Do come.  We’d love to see you.  If you’re a storyteller, maybe tell a story too.

Saratoga Storytelling Open mic
at Caffè Lena, 47 Phila St. Saratoga Springs, NY
Monday, September 13th, at 7 pm
Sign-ups for storytellers at 6:45 pm
Admission only $3, refreshments $1 each.

Sunday Mornings (Song for a Woman with Alzheimer’s Disease)

Intro: For years my favorite people in the world (next to my kids) were the tutors in the Writing Center at Union College in Schenectady, NY. I just got an email from one of them, Charlie Agar.  Years have passed and he is now entirely grown-up. [You are, right, Charlie?!] He is walking to fight Alzheimer’s and asks for my support. Funny how lives criss-cross. These days I tell stories to nursing-home patients with Alzheimer’s, and every Sunday I sit with a woman in her home so her husband can go to church. Here is a story I wrote about those Sunday visits. It’s sad.  Maybe next time I should post my story about the international gopher museum–not sad in any way at all. Not to forget…to support Charlie, go to http://memorywalk.kintera.org/hays10/alzcare274.

Sunday Mornings

I sit with her on Sunday mornings so her husband can go to church. For more than thirty years, they used to go together. Often she would be asked to speak during the service.
“She was the smart one,” he says. Now he goes alone.
An RV rusts in the side yard. When she and her husband first learned of her future, they traveled round the country to make the most of whatever good time she had left. Inside the house, old-fashioned crafts, cookbooks on a kitchen shelf, photos of her children tell me of the woman she used to be–photos of her grandchildren of joys she can never experience.
She is too young, not much older than I, to be suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. She can’t walk, can’t even change position in her bed or recliner. She can’t dress herself or feed herself. She can’t speak. She’s been this way for years.
Every Sunday, before I come, her husband bathes her, dresses her, feeds her, and props her up in her recliner or lays her back in her hospital bed in the living room. And when he goes, I sit in the chair beside her. I read or knit, recite poetry aloud, or tell her stories. Usually she ignores me. Sometimes she looks at me as if puzzled, as if to say, “Who are you and why are you here?” Sometimes she seems enraged and I stop whatever I’m doing at that moment or resume whatever it is I stopped doing or just get back to my reading or knitting. She never looks happy. She never smiles.
Sometimes I stroke her forehead and cheek for a short while. She may close her eyes. Once, when I stopped, she drew the back of her hand to her cheek as if to stroke her face herself, but mostly she lies quietly, apparently indifferent. Sometimes she gets angry and I draw my hand away. And she never smiles.
It is quiet these Sunday mornings. Her husband leaves the radio playing softly, oldies mostly. I don’t think she pays attention. I have a quiet time to read the Sunday paper, to catch up on unread books, to knit for hours without interruption.
One small detail about this routine is odd. Every week for all these months, I find myself singing to her, singing the same song, in French, no less. Surely I would at least sing a song likely to stir some old memories in her ailing brain. But no, I sing a French-Canadian folksong that I learned decades ago in French class. Heaven knows my voice is flat and off key. When my children were little, they used to beg me not to sing. Still I sing this old folksong every week. She looks my way, or ignores me, or gets angry. If she looks angry, I stop. She doesn’t smile.
“Ah, si mon moine voulait danser…un capuchon je lui donnerai….Danse mon moine danse, tu n’entends pas la danse, Tu n’entends pas le moulin lon la, Tu n’entends pas le moulin marcher.
“If my monk wanted to dance, I would give him a hooded robe….Dance, my monk, dance. You don’t hear the dance. You don’t hear the mill. You don’t hear the mill running.”

Why on earth do I sing it? After all, it’s just a light-hearted song about a girl tempting a monk to dance.

One night I woke up in my own bed, finally understanding what the song means to me and why I sing it. I have thought of myself as a bystander to her troubles. True enough, little is asked of me when I sit with her. But I am not merely knitting the morning away so a husband can have a break. I am affected too. It occurred to me that I’ve been singing the song for myself. I ache for a woman unable to know either the pleasures of life, like the music of the dance, or the work of life, like the sound of the mill grinding grain for a village.
Over and over again, I invite her to dance and mourn the reality. She cannot. She can’t even smile. And I care.
I’ve decided—I shall make a card to carry with me as long as I have my wits about me. On it, I shall write, “Hear the dance.” And I shall remember to smile.

Copyright by Margaret French

 

Find the song here.

 

Uncle Cleosophus Stories, Retold

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

Listening to the story

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.
I continue…

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.”

Breakfast at the track.

Before the day was over, I heard from my youngest. He sided with his brothers.

Copyright August 22, 2005, by Margaret French

Saratoga Portraits

Tour guide. For several years I gave tours of Congress Park in my new home town, Saratoga Springs, NY. I loved it: a walk around a city park that served as a jumping off place for fabulous stories, mostly true, about the rich and famous who’ve visited this city every summer since it was founded. History buffs who came on the tours added gossip and trivia of their own. Priceless stuff for a storyteller.

For example, you say. Well, how about Diamond Jim Brady who started with nothing, made a fortune in the railroad industry, and believed in flaunting it. He owned thirty sets of diamonds (more than 20,000 in all, plus 6,000 other gems) and wore a different set every day of the month. The theme of his most famous set was transportation: 2,548 diamonds in settings that included a camel, a bicycle, a locomotive in diamonds on his eyeglass case, and a diamond Pullman car worn on his underwear.

To wear that many diamonds at one time, he had to wear them everywhere: collar buttons, shirt studs, necktie pin and clasp, cuff links, belt buckle, watch chain, watch, eyeglass case, pencil. “Them as as ’em, wears ’em,” he’d say proudly.

To his ladylove, the voluptuous singer Lillian Russell, he gave a gold-plated bicycle with her initials in diamonds and rubies on the handlebars. She rode it around town on Sundays in her white cycling attire and jaunty Tyrolean hat.

And remember, we’re talking about the 1890s. Think of how much this would all be worth nowadays!

Brady’s appetite for food was equally extravagant. Clams and oysters and crabs and ducks and steak and turtles and a roast—all in one meal. (And a plate of veggies too, just to keep it healthy.) Gallons of orange juice and lemon soda—every day. Dessert measured not by the slice, but by the number of pies, the platters of pastries, and the pounds of candy. People watched him dine, cheered him on, and took bets on whether he’d die of a heart attack before he finished dinner. One restaurant owner called him his 25 best customers.

He died in his fifties of a stroke, not before he’d given away substantial amounts to charity. In Baltimore, there’s a urology center named after him, one of the recipients of his generosity.

Of course, he was never accepted by old money, but he didn’t care. Maybe that’s why people were intrigued by his story. They still are.

But I also like the stories about the people who stay after the summer folk go home. They fascinate me as much, maybe more.

One of the most intriguing and mysterious people is Angeline Tubbs, the Witch of Saratoga. I’m telling a story about her on July 21st at 7:30 pm at the Boght Arts Center. She fascinates me for a lot of reasons, maybe because I don’t quite have a handle on what to make of her life. (That’s true of most of the people I know, come to think of it. When I think I do have a handle on a person, I’ve probably not gone deep enough.)

Angeline lived in Saratoga for a very long time, from the American Revolution to the Civil War. During that time, she was mostly mocked, feared, shunned, or ignored. People either called her “touched in the head” or a witch. Nowadays, people marvel that she survived and call her a heroine. I’ll let you decide what to make of her.

If you can, come Wednesday to hear Betty Cassidy and I tell our stories about people of Saratoga and the Adirondacks.

By the way, the Boght Center is fascinating, a church converted into a place that celebrates the arts, yet keeps its spiritual underpinnings. As they say on their website, “Here, artists from varying faith and cultural backgrounds feel comfortable expressing themselves through the arts.” A wonderful goal. Check out their website: http://www.boghtarts.org/

I promise you Angeline Tubbs will be one of the stories I tell.

All the information you’ll want to know:
We’re performing on Wednesday, July 21st at 7:30 pm. at the Boght Arts Center, in Cohoes, NY.
Our program is called “Portraits from High Places: Stories of Saratoga and the Adirondacks.” It’s part of a series called the Summer Storytelling Vespers. The phone number of the Boght Center is 518-785-ARTS.

Others are telling this summer too. Joe Doolittle, Ed Munger, and Nancy Munger were absolutely wonderful on July 7th. You won’t want to miss the other tellers in the series:

On July 28th, Dee Lee and Claire Nolan will tell “Stories of Portraits in Our Family Album”

On August 4th, Mary Murphy and Nancy Marie Payne will tell “Portraits of Women: Stories of Women Who Made a Difference”

The Story Walker

Kathleen Gill, the Story WalkerLong ago storytellers used to travel from place to place, telling and learning stories everywhere they went.  Come to think of it, they still do. But of all the storytellers I know, few travel quite like  Kathleen Gill, who’ll be the featured teller this month at storytelling open mic. (June 14th, 7 pm, at Caffè Lena in Saratoga, NY.)  Kathleen is an ardent hiker with a passion and a knack for sharing stories along the way. And it seems there are few trails she hasn’t followed.
When I mention Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Canada, near the potato farm where my family had lived for generations, Kathleen replies, “Sure, great place.  I went to a fantastic fiddling festival there when I hiked the international Applachian trail.”  [A fiddling festival?  Who knew?] Believe me, if ever a place was off the beaten track, it’s Plaster Rock.  Think Cariboo, Maine.  Now head north.
When I mention heavy World War I casualties in Newfoundland, Kathleen jumps into the story of the night that the lights went out in St. Johns. Men went from house to house to tell families that 684 of their young men, 91% of all the Newfoundlanders asked to “go over the top” that day had died. It was in July of 1916 at the battle of the Somme. She heard that story hiking in Newfoundland.
Over several summers, Kathleen hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail–then wrote a book about it, Story Walking the Appalachian Trail. Look for it; it’s a good read.
Lately Kathleen has been coping with some major health issues.  For now, she’s limited in what she can do.  But amazingly, she tells me she still finds ways to go hiking.
I don’t know if she’ll tell hiking stories on June 14th.  Her repertoire is rich. But I know I’ll be there. If you’re in the area, why don’t you come too?

Saratoga Storytelling Open Mic
June 14th, at 7 pm at Caffè Lena, Saratoga, NY

Changing reality, one story at a time

This week I’ve been working on a story about a blacksmith and his wife who invited my family to a farewell dinner when we moved away from Calgary, Alberta. They served us a strange and wonderful meal. The story is for a program I’m doing on May 1oth with Betty Cassidy, another Saratoga storyteller, of stories about the 1950s and 60s. It occurred to me, as I thought about that bizarre meal and my parents’ unexpected response to it, that some of my notions about my parents must have been wrong. My parents would not have been friends with this couple if they had been as uptight as I remember them. They would not have handled the situation with such (relative) aplomb.

Maybe it’s time for me to adjust my reality yet again.  I’m pretty comfortable with a few solid facts.  2 + 2 most always equals 4. Gravity still seems to be in working order. Probably.  But most everything else seems forever to shift depending on my point of view. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that I’m sure of nothing. And the more comfortable I am with this uncertainty.  Oh well.

In this blog, I’ll write mostly about my storytelling, which I love with a passion.  And because my storytelling is always about my trying to figure out the people in my life and this shifting thing we call reality, I’ll write about them too.

Margaret