Thursday, April 14, 2016

Tell Me a Story, Mama

Telling stories, oral stories,

This is the request I get daily. Multiple times a day. Honestly, probably about fifty times a day.

"Tell me a story, Mama."

I guess most of the time it's more of a command rather than a request. This has become the go-to recourse for any moment of boredom: waiting while I fix lunch, driving in the car, getting dressed in the morning...

"Tell me a story, Mama."

It started out as a technique to keep him quiet during those long hours of church. My husband would softly whisper stories into his ear, his little body finally holding still, caught in rapt attention. Early on, those many years ago, they were "Josh and Danny Boy" stories, Danny Boy being the golden retriever at Grandma and Grandpa's house that serves as our surrogate pet-from-a-distance. Josh and Danny Boy would go on all sorts of adventures together in those stories, usually ending up dirty and muddy and happy in the end.

But his appetite for these stories proved insatiable, and soon, stories during church weren't enough. He started demanding them during the week, when Daddy was at work, and so the task fell to me to tell these stories. I quickly changed tack and began telling "Josh and Baby Henry" stories, Baby Henry at the time being more of an ephemeral idea to him, no more than a strange bump on Mama's tummy. In an effort to prepare him for the office of "older brother," and hopefully bond him in some way to the formless little baby that would entirely change his life, I regaled him with the adventures he would have with his little brother in some fantastical future.

Then Baby Henry came, but the request for stories did not stop, so the "Josh and Baby Henry" stories continued.

And then Baby Henry grew up, until he was walking and talking and really not quite so much a baby anymore, but the request for stories did not end, and so they became just "Josh and Henry" stories.

Tell me a story, oral stories

"Tell me a story, Mama. Please?"

Over the years the adventures of these two boys have gone from the realistic and mundane ("Josh and Henry went on an adventure to the kitchen! Where they discovered Mama making dinner! And they waited patiently and quietly listening to her story until she was done, and they ate together, and were happy, The End!"), to the completely fantastical (Josh and Henry became pirates! Astronauts! Deep sea divers! World travelers! Dug a hole through the whole earth!). Over the years some stories have repeated themselves (I only have so many new ideas), but it never seems to matter so much what the story is about, just that it's being told.

Sometimes, when the requests for "Just one more, story, mama" have gone past four or five stories, I gently suggest that maybe he tell me a story this time, I would really love to hear one of his stories, couldn't he please tell me a story instead? Please?

But his response is always emphatic, "I'm not the guy who tells story, mama. You are the guy who tells stories."

tell me a story, oral stories

Over the years, these stories have developed a rhythm and cadence, a pattern that he has come to expect and must not be deviated from or he will correct me.

It begins with me, "Once upon a time, there were two cute boys named..."

And then I must wait until he responds, "Josh and Henry!"

"And these two boys loved to go on adventures together..."

"Do you know what adventure they had this time?"

"No, what was the adventure this time?"

And then Josh will tell me what adventure he wants them to have: climbing trees at the park, or finding secret passages through the walls, or floating on bubbles up to the clouds. Then I must continue telling the story with this prescribed adventure, so in a way, these stories are his. I do the telling, but he directs the action.

At some point in the story, he'll ask, "And what did Mama think Josh and Henry were doing?"

"Mama thought they were playing quietly in their room."

"So she didn't know they were having an adventure?"

"Nope, she didn't know, until she walked into the room to check on them and said, Josh? Henry? Where are you? Oh, no! Have they gone on another adventure without me again?"

Somehow this part is important, my ignorance of the adventure these two boys are having together. I hope it's not teaching him an inappropriate lesson (sometimes I stress that they must ask permission before going to the moon), but it's become part of the expected pattern.

tell me a story, oral stories

"Tell me a story, Mama."

I would not be honest if I didn't admit the dread I sometimes feel at hearing these words. The relentlessness of this request wears me down, and by the fiftieth story of the day I'm looking for any distraction (food, T.V., anything) that will keep him occupied long enough for me to catch a break.

But I try to remind myself that there will come a day when he stops asking for my stories. That I will look back fondly at the memory of these stories, and how much he loved them. And mostly, I remind myself of the value of what these stories are giving him.

Sometimes I try to slip lessons into the stories: Josh learns how to be nice to Henry and not hit him, Josh learns how to not talk to bad strangers, whatever. I have no idea if these lessons will stick (hopefully the bit about having adventures behind Mama's back will slip away), but what will stick is the love of story.

In my personal, humble opinion, stories are what life is all about anyway. Stories are how we make sense of life. Stories are how we find meaning. There is a beginning, a middle, an end, and it makes sense. To tell stories is to be human.

I hope he comes to understand that life is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Life is a story we are in the middle of, and while we can't control everything, we can control how we frame the story. We can be the victims, or we can be the heroes. I always want my boys to know they are the heroes of their life story, this grand adventure they are on. I want them to learn how to make sense of their lives through the stories they tell about it.

And stories connect us. We understand ourselves through stories, but we understand others through stories as well. These stories I tell every day to my son connect us, and hopefully with every story I tell him, he hears what I'm truly trying to tell him: "I love you."

And so for every new request of "Tell me a story," I begin again:

"Once upon a time..."


  1. Oh Suzanne, this is so so sweet.

    1. Thanks Amy. It sounds so much sweeter here than it feels in real life most of the time (which is why I wrote about it, to remind myself that all this storytelling is actually sweet).

  2. I loved reading this post! What a precious tradition you've started with your boys. It's something that you and your family will look back on with loving fondness, I'm sure.

    1. Thank you so much! I hope he always has a memory of these stories.

  3. So sweet! You should write some down and have Josh illustrate them😊

    1. That is a good idea, if I ever get the initiative to make it happen!