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A Collector of Stories

It was a small house on Kanuga Road, and the dining room table took over that room. It was wide and long, and many chairs and stools always crowded around it. Sometimes there were several high chairs in the mix. Whether it was for Sunday dinner or only warm, pound cake and cold, sweet iced tea, it was the gathering place at Granny and Pop’s home.

Sitting around the dining room table at my great grandparents’ house in Hendersonville, North Carolina was a privilege I didn’t realize when I was young. What I remember now was the smiles and laughter as Granny encouraged various family members to tell their stories. Most would begin with “Do you remember….”  She even included us children in this time by asking questions about school, church, or friends. I can remember her nods and sparkling blue eyes, as she listened to all of us.  It was obvious that she loved stories, particularly family stories, and closely paid attention to the details.

Eudora Welty, a Southern storyteller said, “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” I believe this about myself and other children, even as we quietly continued to play.

Besides listening to the family stories, I vaguely remember Granny sharing stories, too. She shared about the boarders she took into their home at Laurel Cliff when my great-grandfather lost his money during the Great Depression.  Many were summer boarders that visited year after year. Granny served three meals a day, plus afternoon tea.  Her eight children talked about her hospitality to anyone who came to the door. Hobos were always served, just like her paying guests, and all enjoyed her Southern cooking.

Laurel Cliff, 1905

Minnie Ethelene Hefner Justus (1877-1970) went to a small women’s college in Asheville and always set her crowded table with china and cloth napkins. Flowers from her yard spread their scents around from the center vase. A blessing of thankfulness began each meal, and woe be to any that did a taste test before the food was blessed. Boarding-house-reach was frowned on by all the adults, but especially Granny. Her eyes paid attention to all seated as her guests. Coffee and dessert completed each meal, and her baking skills were excellent with pies and cakes, as well as biscuits and cornbread.

If we were there close to Mother’s Day, there would be some of her pink peonies on the table. Usually she put them in a bowl or teapot, rather than a vase. Often petals would drop off on her linen tablecloth, but no one minded the disarray.That sweet scent is now in my back yard from her yard. They should be ready to cut and bring in next week, and I will savor their beauty. I am the fourth generation to enjoy them.

Though she wore her house dress and full apron at home, she dressed up for church. She and Pop attended a country church called Pleasant Hill. This white frame church had steep steps going up to the entrance. If you remember the song, “Church in the Wildwood,” that church was brown, but Pleasant Hill comes to my mind when I hear it. Someone always rang their church bell to call people to worship.

Granny owned a seal skin coat that she would let me try on and parade around the house, but it was furs that she chose for Sundays. She looks stern here, but that is the way they posed for snapshots back then. I only remember her with a smile.

There was always a myriad of minutiae that she shared that helped me to picture what she was reminiscing about. Granny painted pictures with her words, and oh, how I want to do the same, whether with my writing or telling stories around my own table.

As I weave facts and oral tradition in my writing about heroines of the American Revolution in South Carolina and other women who made a difference in our state, I have seen the importance of those stories passed down from one generation to another. They keep a family alive and connected to the past.

Whether it is with family or friends, strangers, or in the office, we should share our stories, because those stories are who we are.

As Rudyard Kipling said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” And we continue to read his stories of animals that talk to people or other animals, never blinking an eye.

So, yes, to continuing to collect stories and putting them to paper. Let’s all tell our stories over and over again.

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