Tell Them a Story. Like Big Bird!

“Sunny day
Sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?”

This morning, my daughter suggested we turn Sesame Street on for her one-year-old. We did, and oh, the feelings that swept through me.

It’s the first week of a new decade. My holiday decorations are stored, the garage is impossible to use while we try to clear the house of clutter, I used New Year’s Eve to paint a bedroom. There’s a new baby, just twenty days old, living in my house and distracting me from my chores (I am joyous to oblige him). Lots of fresh starting going on.

There’s also a lot of nostalgic wishing and sighing. A little angst- I still haven’t had a book published or lost the ten pounds I need to, but those are little angsts. The big angst is over people I miss. When you’re very, very young, like my two grandchildren, time has no meaning. Days? Months? Years? Decades? Pfft. When you’re a teen or perhaps a young adult, every new year may feel like the beginning, like a fresh start full of promise. Onward!

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When you’re in the middle, like I am, you look forward and backward in equal measure. And this morning, with Big Bird on the screen, I didn’t just glance backward. My very soul seemed pulled right out of the now. The episode began with Elmo singing with friends on the stoop of the brownstone, the green doors opening to reveal Gordon, his father, and his son, Miles. They told a surprised Elmo and Miles, who couldn’t imagine that the two old guys might have been musicians, stories of their younger days as a singer and a guitarist. Gordon’s flashback included Luis and Bob, and my five-year-old spirit danced in recognition.

I have always loved Sesame Street. Its literacy lessons gave me reading, but its inclusive kindness gave me hope. I was a pretty lonely kid, and Big Bird’s gentle love for the invisible Snuffy was a source of great joy for me. When my own eldest was a toddler, I shared SS with her on the Lubbock PBS station; Ernie was her favorite. For her second Christmas, we got her an Ernie ornament for our tree. My father was with us that Christmas, and when we hung that Ernie, he told me that he remembered how I had loved the show as a small girl. I had never realized he’d noticed that. But I did, I really did love it. And my dad. He loved me, too.

Caroll Spinney, the operator and voice of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, passed on my granddaughter’s first birthday, and as she stood at the TV screen this morning, I realized anew just how important it is that we pass along, to our children and grandchildren, all the things that Sesame Street holds dear: kindness, literacy, and story.

Story is power, it is magic, it is blessing and curse. Humans love stories. We draw them, film them, record them, write them, and tell them around campfires. My Grandma June used to tell the same family yarns over and over at gatherings, so often repeating herself that her kids and kids-in-law developed a hand signal: when Grandma started a story they’d all heard before, they would start flashing their fingers above their heads to indicate how many times they’d heard the tale. Then they’d all laugh, including Grandma, and she’d tell the story anyhow. Story is how the thread of a family can be woven in and around generations, creating a tapestry that is indestructible. It may become threadbare at times, perhaps worn or frayed, but the through-line will preserve a household. How can we share story?

Story can be long. My Grandmother Juanita was a seamstress; when I’d visit and she needed to sew for a client, she’d set me up near her machine with my own doll, fabric scraps, needle, and thread. I’d cut and stitch as she made beautiful dresses, while stories fell from between her pin-filled lips. Stories of raising children while picking cotton, stories of church. Stories about the women who came to her home for dress fittings. She shared an oral history with me that could not have been heard if we’d been in front of a screen. Those stories took hours of communication: her talking, me listening and asking questions.

But that’s not the only way to share story. There are ways to incorporate it into a daily life lived in such a way that our tales flow out of us, long and short, deeply profound or joyfully silly, memorable or not. Each story shared, no matter length or gravitas, builds a connection with each other: parent to child, roomie to roomie, teacher to student.

Though I usually shy away from creating a list, today I am giving it a try. Here are some ways to share story with your loved ones, whether family of blood or family of choice, friends treasured, or students respected.

  • The most obvious is to share meals around a table. Screens off. Though my hubby and I share our meals in front of a TV now, when we were raising kids, we gathered them around the table, television off, for dinner every night. Those thirty minutes allowed everyone to hear and be heard. It did get harder as they got older and began playing sports and taking dance lessons. But the foundation we laid in their younger years remains firm.
  • Leave the photo albums and scrapbooks out where everyone has quick and easy access. I used to spend hours poring over my parents’ wedding album and the albums of all the photos taken when they were young and my brother and I were small. Sometimes I asked my parents what was happening in a particular picture, but at other times I allowed these photos to be a jumping-off place for histories of my own creation. I personally have around twelve albums now of my own family.  And if some of the cute decorations in the albums that moms of my generation were creating so lovingly during the 90s and 00s get torn, so what?
  • Tiny moments call for short stories. Washing dishes, tucking in, not making the team…all opportunities for stories that are just a couple of sentences. When I was tightening the key on the expander in my kids’ mouths (they all inherited my narrow jaw, unfortunately), I’d tell them tales of my own orthodontic nightmares, including the time when my inner upper lip cut open then sealed shut over the arch of wire running along my upper gums. These old stories gave them hope that they’d survive the ordeal, it let them know that I really did understand their pain, and it helped them to understand that I am a person who lived and loved before they came along.
  • Write things down. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even grammatically flawless. One of my most treasured possessions is the file of letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during their courtship. Sometimes, I sit and read a couple of those letters that are in his scrawled, slanting handwriting, and I feel him and remember him so closely. Keep a book in which you grab a pen and write short notes. Your loved ones will be glad to have it someday. And it’s just not quite the same if it’s all done exclusively digitally.
  • However, sometime technology really can be helpful! Call and leave voice texts-not voice mails, but actual voice texts. They can be longer, can be saved, and can be listened to at convenience and on repeat. Since we’re all carrying smart phones now, you can simply pop in your AirPods and listen to a saved message from the one you miss.
  • When I was a kid, there was a rack of record albums sitting by my parents’ stereo console, I could pull a record out of its sleeve, set it on the turntable, and have a sense of my family through the music they loved. When I was a young adult, we were making mix tapes and CDs, assembling the songs we loved to tell others about us. Now, we can make a playlist and share it. And if we listen to it together, we can share the stories that go along with the songs. At our house, anytime Amy Grant’s “Baby, Baby” comes on, I have to tell the story of my daughter pronouncing it “Maven, Maven” as I drove our used sedan to work, dropping her and her baby brother off at daycare at Ms. Sharina’s first.
  • Traditions and rituals make wonderful opportunities for sharing stories. It might be a cooking tradition, a travel tradition, a holiday tradition. At our house, the kids (now 30, 28, and 25) get a new ornament on the tree every year. They have to hunt for it on Christmas Eve after our traditional dinner of tortilla soup and tamales. Of course there is Ernie, but also a baseball player or two, caps and gowns, and a sparkly frog. And when I hang them, everyone there has to listen if I want to tell the story of any ornament. img_1449.jpgThere is one ornament we don’t hang now, it is the matched set of my daughter and her husband from the year they married, 2016. Custom made by an artist friend, they are perfect little replicas of my daughter and son-in-law on their wedding day. Their marriage crumbled after just one year, the weight of his opioid addiction simply too much to bear.

The stories will not be, should not be, exclusively happy. There are sad stories to tell: pets lost, marriages dissolved, arguments and deaths. But we should share them nonetheless. Our lives are the stories we live and leave behind. We have the power to create and share resonant truths. And from these stories of grief and struggle, we learn that resilience is possible.

More importantly, we have the privilege of authoring our own stories, living them daily in front and alongside the ones we love. May your story be heard and your life seen.

As the wonderful Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and my sweet Sesame Street said, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.”

Interested in learning more about telling story in your family? I love this blog!

 

 

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