In the movie The Adventures of Tintin a young crime reporter named Tintin forms an unlikely alliance with a sea captain named Haddock. At one point the captain says “My memory is not as good as it used to be.” Tintin queries “What did it used to be?” The captain replies “I can’t remember.”
Memory enables us to tell stories. Stories enrich our lives and transmit our history through the generations. When our family gathered for Christmas, we told stories from our childhood. As I watched the faces of my nieces and nephews, I recalled sitting around my grandparents’ dinner table listening to stories. Stories describe who we are. Jeff O’Brien, archivist for the city of Saskatoon, speaks about his father who had increasing dementia toward the end of his life. “When he died, it was as if the library had burned down. Actually, my father’s aging was like taking the library apart page by page until it was empty.”
A combined Doukhobor and Anglican service presented a unique opportunity for story telling. The two groups worship in quite different ways. As Anglican leader, I described ritual and symbols, explaining candles, crosses, bread and wine. To tell their story, the Doukhobors formed a choir and sang without benefit of musical instruments. The songs described the persecution their ancestors experienced as they left their homeland in search of religious freedom. Following the service we shared a meal, told stories and came to new understandings.
William R. White in his book Stories for Telling says “Not only do we tell stories to entertain, but to learn from the past, to understand our world, and to grapple with the mysteries of life. Through stories we attempt to find patterns of significance in apparently meaningless events, as well as teach values to the next generation.”
To illustrate, White retells this folktale. “A couple lived with their son Conrad in a house at the edge of a forest. One day the man’s father came to make his home with the young couple. The grandfather’s eyes had grown dim, he was nearly deaf, and his hands shook like leaves in the wind. When he ate, he was unable to hold his spoon without spilling food. Bits of food would run out of his mouth, soiling his clothing. The couple discussed what they might do. Finally they set a table for him to eat in a corner of the kitchen. As he ate, he looked sadly at his family. When he spilt his food, he would sob.
“Eventually the old man could no longer hold his glass bowl. It fell to the floor, breaking into a dozen pieces. The woman scolded him and purchased a wooden bowl as a replacement. The old man said little as he sat in his corner eating out of his wooden bowl.
“One day the father came home from work to find Conrad carving a block of wood. “What are you making?” asked the father. “It is a present for you and mommy” answered the child. “I am carving two wooden bowls so that you will have something to eat from when you live with me in your old age.”
“The husband and wife looked at each other for a long time, and finally began to weep. That evening they moved the elderly grandfather back to the family table. From that day on he always ate with them, and they said nothing when he spilled his food.”