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The first teller I ever knew

As we were gearing up for the annual Pike Piddlers Storytelling Festival this weekend, my thoughts turned to the origin of my love for the art.

My memories drifted back to times around the supper table and the stories that we “strowed” over cat’s head biscuits, ham and redeye gravy. Then, there were the stories my grandpa told as we sat on the back porch on summer nights and those Mama told around the fireplace in the wintertime.

Eunice, Amos and Lizzy kept me entertained with funny stories, scary stories and tall tales on the porch of their ramshackle house every afternoon after school.

But, after much thought, I realized that the beginning of my love for storytelling settled on the back doorsteps of the tenant house where I grew up and with a lady I called Aunt Beatie.

Several years ago, I attended the African-American Leadership Conference at Troy University.

The guest speaker said he had no connection to Troy, but he did to Brundidge. I ran his name through my mental directory and couldn’t place him. At that time, I knew every person in Brundidge, the kind of car they drove, their dog’s name and where they went to church.

The young man didn’t match up with any of them.

I had raised my hand as being from Brundidge so, after the meeting, he came over and explained his connection to my hometown.

His daddy had remarried, so he was a “Smith” but not the set of “Smiths” who still lived in town.

“Oh, then, you’re little Fox’s son?”

He was surprised that I knew his dad and excited that I knew his grandparents who had lived on my granddaddy’s “place.”

“I never knew my grandparents,” he said. “Can you tell me anything about them?”

We talked for a while. Me, a stranger, telling him about his grandmother and granddaddy.

Aunt Beatie and Uncle Fox lived down the pig trail from our house. They lived in a green, wooden boxcar. Now, how that boxcar got out there in the middle of nowhere, I don’t know. But I remember that the steel wheels were set on buried cinder blocks to keep them for sinking into the ground and that the big door slid open. Uncle Fox sat in the opening in a cane bottom chair, and he could spit tobacco juice all the way across the dirt trail and splatter the fence post.

Aunt Beatie worked for my grandmother and every afternoon she would milk ol’ Betsy and walk past our house with the milk bucket swinging and she would be singing.

“Why are you singing, Aunt Beatie?” I’d ask.

Some days she would say “Givin’ my thanks to the Lord.” Other days, “I got happiness in my soul.” But some days she would smile a sad smile and say, “Just singin’ to keep from cryin’ chile.”

After a while, I didn’t have to ask. I could tell by the songs why she was singing.

On the way back from taking the milk down the hill to my grandmother’s, Aunt Beatie would stop at our house. Mama always saved any leftovers for her, and Mama always had leftovers. It would be late in the afternoon and, in the summertime, Aunt Beatie would sit down on the back steps, pull me down on her soft lap, and we’d watch the sun set and she’d tell me stories.

The best I remember, Aunt Beatie was the first storyteller in my life. She told me stories about the pictures we saw in the clouds and about Mr. Rascal Rabbit that lived in the bamboo thicket behind the house and Hootie Owl that lived in the barn. She told me stories about all the animals and she said that animals could talk to each other. Not like we talk but animal talk that only they could understand.

Aunt Beatie stirred my imagination and opened a whole world of wonder to me.

She gave me a different way of looking at the universe. She told me that thunder was the angels moving the furniture in heaven. Uncle Fox said thunder was the devil beating his wife. Aunt Beatie “shushed” him on that and a lot of other things he told. When the rain came, she said the angels were mopping their floors. God was in charge of painting sunsets and rainbows, and He set the stars and hung the moon.

She told me about the North Wind and Jack Frost and fickle ol’ Mother Nature.

She told me stories about doodle bugs, tree frogs and magical lightning bugs. We went on great adventures without ever leaving the security of the back doorsteps of our house.

Aunt Beatie gave me the gift of stories, and I’ll be forever grateful.

Because stories are the Great Connector.

Stories keep us connected with those we love. They are sometimes the connecting link between us and strangers. They are our connection to the past and our gift to future generations. Stories mark our place in time.

Thanks Aunt Beatie for a most wonderful and treasured gift. The gift of stories.