In my childhood, my own grandparents lived a mile and a half from us. During the summer, my folks would “have coffee” once or twice a week The smell of fresh coffee and cookies reminds me of those days. My grandfather would pour some coffee into his saucer, and swirl it around to cool it. He would slurp it down, while us kids would each help ourselves to a cookie or some other goodie that my Grandma had made. The adults who sat around the table would visit about what was happening with themselves, the crops, things that the neighbors said and/or did. When I wasn’t paying attention, Grandpa would steal my cookie, then laugh at me.
At some point, Grandpa would lean back in his chair and say, “I remember when…” We kids would roll our eyes, and asked to be excused to go play. I am sorry now, that I didn’t listen more closely and carefully to what he had to say.
Grandparents, whether they are creative, humorous –or not– are connectors to the past generations. They each have different styles of teaching and sharing. Grandparents provide connection between at least four generations: My grandparents were the first generation. My parents are the the second, Third; my children,, and my grandchildren are the fourth generation. I am the center link who knows all four generations.
Our world has changed so dramatically in the last 100 years. Our grandchildren will find it hard to understand the world of our parents and grandparents unless we tell stories and provide connections to the past. Our stories give grandchildren a sense of connection to past generations and provide awareness of family roots, which in turn provide security and strength. These family roots help them shape an identity.
Storytelling happens in many situations. You may hear stories at the meal table of what happened in school today or what happened at work. You may overhear a story being told in the line at the grocery store, while you are riding in the car or on the bus, or while you are walking down the sidewalk.
A three-year old may tell you a story that you may not completely understand, but you know it is a story because it has a beginning, and his voice gets excited in the middle, then calms down at the end.
Some storytelling situations demand informality; others are highly formal. The Christmas, Hanukah, Passover, and Easter stories are told at specific times of the year. And we tell stories in religious rituals, such as Baptism or Holy Communion. Some demand certain themes, attitudes, and artistic approaches, and the expectations about listener interaction and the nature of the story itself vary widely.
People around us may speak, at the same time encouraging the listener’s imagination. Storytelling is interactive; if we are listening, we may nod our heads, jump in with comments, and ask questions. These responses influence how the story is told. In fact, storytelling emerges from the interaction and cooperative, coordinated efforts of the speaker and the listener.
Different cultures and situations create different expectations for the exact roles of storyteller and listener—who speaks how often and when, for example—and therefore create different forms of interaction. Storytelling uses words whether they are a spoken language or a manual language such as American Sign Language.
Storytelling uses physical movements and/or gestures. These actions are the parts of spoken or manual language other than words. Their use distinguishes storytelling from writing and text-based computer interactions. Not all story-tellers use hand or body movements. Instead, they rely on their voices.
Storytelling involves the presentation of a story—a narrative. What is recognized as a story in one situation may not be accepted as one in another. Some situations call for spontaneity and playful digression, for example; others call for near-exact repetition of a revered text.
Storytelling encourages the active imagination of the listeners. The storytelling listener’s role is to actively create the vivid, multi-sensory images, actions, characters, and events—the reality—of the story in his or her mind, based on what the teller says and on the listener’s own past experiences, beliefs, and understandings. The completed story happens in the mind of the listener, a unique and personalized individual. The listener becomes, therefore, a co-creator of the story as experienced.
Many times we don’t realize it, but we tell the same story over and over again. Details may change from person to person, as we remember things each time. A few months ago, I was in the check-out line at the grocery store, and saw a crowd at the door. I passed the group on my way out. At the center of the group was a man with a macaw perched on his shoulder. This majestic animal flapped his wings and bobbed his head when I went past. When my grandchildren were visiting the following week, I told them about the macaw. I was pretty sure that they didn’t know what a macaw was, and I was tempted to say “parrot” in the story I was telling. But this unusual animal and its size was a key part of the story.
When my daughter came to pick up the kids, they -told the story to their mother. Naturally, it got changed, into their perspective. The macaw now had a wingspan that was “this big!” – about twelve inches bigger than what I had indicated! I told this same story to my husband, my sister-in-law, my son, and to a checker in the store that I initially saw the bird. Each time I told it, I remembered different details.
The stories of our lives, people we encounter, and things we do are kept alive by being told again and again. The material of any given story naturally undergoes several changes and adaptations during this process. Elements of oral storytelling include visualization (the seeing of images in the mind’s eye), and vocal and bodily gestures. In many ways, storytelling also draws upon acting and changes in the voice.
What are some stories that you tell? And how do your listeners react?