If you listen to enough stories when you’re a kid, some of the magic is bound to rub off on you. My dear departed grandmother was a fabulous storyteller who passed that skill down to her only child, my dear departed father. I celebrate both of them today, a week too late for Grandparents Day.
Daddy wasn’t much for reading books to my brother Rusty and me. That was Mother’s job. His job was to tell us stories, stories so predictable and formulaic that we were seldom surprised at how they ended. But the stories enthralled and delighted us anyway.
We were children of the 1960s, when there was nothing quite so wonderful as the cartoons that played on the black-and-white console TV in the corner of our living room. Our favorite was Huckleberry Hound, a loveable anthropomorphic coon dog with a heavy Southern drawl not unlike our own. “My Darlin’ Clementine” was his favorite song. Huckleberry’s slow-walking, slow-talking ways didn’t mean he was slow-witted. Quite the contrary. No matter what kind of trouble arose, Huck’s quick thinking and quiet bravery always saved the day.
Daddy’s stories usually involved Rusty and me getting into some kind of terrible mess, like accidentally being locked in a cold, dark storage room at a J.C. Penney store (Daddy worked for Penney’s for more than 30 years). A violent thunderstorm would suddenly kick up and tear off a big section of roof and shatter a window. Water would begin filling the room. Jennie and Rusty feared they’d be blown away or drown. But just when things seemed hopeless, off in the distance they’d hear a sound.
Here’s where Daddy got real quiet. Then he softly began to sing, in a voice even more off-key than Huckleberry’s, these words: Oh my darlin,’ oh my darlin,’ oh my DARlin’ Clementine, you are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine. Thanks to Huck’s climactic appearance, the frightened children were saved!
Flash forward 60 years. I’m wedged in the backseat of my Toyota RAV between the massive car seats of my six-year-old granddaughter Josephine and my three-year-old grandson Oliver. Daughter is driving. Son-in-law is in the front passenger seat, typing away on his laptop computer. We’re travelling west on that terrifyingly curvy stretch of I-40 between Asheville and Newport and the children are starting to whine and bicker.
How can I keep them entertained?
I hearken back to my Huckleberry Hound Dog days and I begin telling Jo and Oliver how the great-grandpa they never knew used to tell wonderful stories to me and their Uncle Rusty. But it isn’t the cartoon dog these kids are interested in. They want to learn more about “My Darlin’ Clementine.” They’d heard snippets of the chorus, but don’t know any of the verses.
So I begin singing, off-key but not on purpose, the tragic tale of a young woman who lived with her father and sister during the San Francisco gold rush of 1849. She drove ducklings to the water every morning until the fateful day when she tripped and fell in. You know the rest. The young man narrating the story was no swimmer and couldn’t save her. He missed her terribly until he kissed her little sister. Then he forgot his Clementine.
Oliver finds the story mildly amusing. But Josephine is mesmerized. She insists I sing every verse very slowly. Then we discuss the details. We sing the song over and over again until she knows all the words. By now we’ve almost reached our destination, the Cracker Barrel near the Knoxville airport. I explain to her that I know this wonderful song-that-tells-a-story because her great-grandpa sang it over and over to me.
And I tell her that he’ll never be lost nor gone forever as long as we keep the gift of his storytelling alive.
(September 18, 2021)