Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"The Portraits"

One of the first stories I ever wrote to tell to adults is called "The Portraits." It's a strange story about the two portraits we had when I was a child. One is the portrait of my ancestor Sarah Vischer Schuyler Hoyle, the other of my great-grandfather on the other side of the family, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, the Episcopal bishop.

I've been telling this story since about 1989. I love bringing the characters to life, showing the expressions of these two portraits, and of myself as a kid. I can't quite say it's a ghost story, but it is odd, with unexpected twists in a couple of places.

I tell this story to adults and older kids. Sometimes kids (and occasionally adults) ask me if it's true. I remind them that all my stories start with a seed of truth. I used to say that truth is immutable and facts are flexible, but kids were highly dissatisfied with that answer. From time to time I turn the question back and ask them what they think. Is it true?

For the past few years, I've had the portrait of Sarah in my house. She's a dour looking old lady, with a face that is clearly related to mine. I hesitate to say that the nose runs in the family, but you know what I mean. The portrait was probably painted by an itinerant painter, who had the form prepared in advance (on a bedsheet, it turns out, not canvas) and just filled in the face.

When I first brought her home, I tried putting her on the main wall in my living room, but the darkness of the portrait was like a big black hole. Too scary. I shifted her to a smaller wall, with a lamp nearby. Much better. The only problem is that this wall is directly opposite my bedroom, and my bed is right inside the door. If I keep the door open, she watches me as I sleep. Unsettling. I close the door almost all the way, so the cat can still come and go.

A couple of weeks ago, I got up in the night and had the hingepin fall out of the door. The door then clunked off its hinge. This had happened several times, always in the night. Each time, I grumbled, hoisted the door back, pushed the pin back in, complained to myself about the silliness of having a hingepin on the bottom so it would fall out, and went back to bed, promising myself to fix it in the light of day. This time, I decided to take care of it. There I was at 3 a.m., screwdriver in hand, undoing the entire hinge and resetting it right side up, muscling the door back into place, all under the watchful eyes of Sarah Vischer Schuyler Hoyle and the cat.

She was a resourceful woman herself. As I say in the story, "She took her second husband to court when he tried to cheat her out of money her first husband had left her. She lost that case, but in our family, it was always called a landmark case." I think she might have been pleased that I did this minor repair on my own, even if it was in the middle of the night.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The book habit

"A room without books is like a body without a soul."--Cicero

Cicero would have liked my house. I've got books or magazines in every room. The other day a friend came over after I'd been noodling around in about twelve books, some of which were piled on the floor, some open on the sofa, mixed in with notes on scrap paper, bookmarks, and a magazine or two. My friend took one look and said, "It looks like study hall in here!"

It doesn't always look like that. Today I put the living room in order, so there are no piles of books. Three full bookcases, yes, but no piles. Here in the office, there are only four or five piles on the floor. I would put these books on the shelves, but I need to have these out so I'll look at them soon. One is the brand new annotated Grimm, absolutely beautiful. Some of the piles are library books--I have cards for three libraries in my wallet. I used to have a specific shelf for borrowed books, but I've run out of space for that.

In this office, there are three tall and two short bookcases. The bedroom has two tall bookcases, the kitchen has a short one, and there's a magazine holder in the bathroom. All are full. The pile next to the bed is about ten books tall right now.

I can't seem to help this. Sometimes I go through and weed my collection, taking the books I am willing to set free to the used bookstore. That's dangerous--I get credit, not cash, so more find their way to my house.

Last Sunday I got rid of six books at the 100 Good Women chocolate potluck and book swap, and I only brought home two. That would seem laudable, but the day before I went to the free day at the library book sale and came home with about twenty. That's on top of the six or so that I got for full price the previous week.

I scored big at that library sale: five old issues of Parabola, two PG Wodehouse novels (one was a duplicate in my Wodehouse collection), cartoons by Edward Koren, Let's go for broke by Mary Lasswell (well-loved but unknown to all but my family?), Great folktales of wit and humor by James R. Foster, More Celtic fairy tales collected by Joseph Jacobs, a book of Russian slang, a couple of books on Medieval romances, and more.

While it might sound as if I just collect books, I do read them. Like the rest of my family, I've been a reader since I was four. I especially love sitting quietly with my family, all of us reading together. I read while I eat, before I sleep, while I brush my teeth (that strange-looking thing on the side of the sink is a leather bookweight, to hold a book open while I floss).

There's comfort in knowing that I come from a long line of readers. Rumor has it that when my Grandmother Howe was a library trustee in Bristol RI, the books were delivered first to the house, where they were read by the family before going to the library (except for the trashy novels, which went straight to the Rogers Free Library).

Time for supper. Wonder what I'll read.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Short stories

In that last post I remembered that I don't have to write a long treatise. There's a place for short blog posts, just as there's a place for short stories.

Last month in the showcase at Midwest Arts, I had fifteen minutes to present what I do. In that time, I gave snippets from my longest story ("Tristan and Iseult" which weighs in at 95 minutes), and from six or seven other tales. I also told two short stories ("Truth and story" and "The twist-mouth family"). I think I came up with a minute to spare.

Much as I love telling a long story like "Tristan", I like having a pocketful of two-minute stories. Back when I was a librarian in Connecticut, a friend and I put on a Teller's Day. We invited all the storytellers we knew to turn up for a day of storytelling and discussion. Admission? One two-minute story.

These are the stories that work when I'm put on the spot by "You're a storyteller? Tell me a story." (that means you, Mom!). They're the stories that fill in spaces in a performance or that simply add a flourish to a program.

Here's my version of "Truth and Story," which I think has Hasidic origins:

Truth walked into town one day, thinking she'd go shopping. She walked into a store, but the storekeeper said, "Get out of here! We don't want your type around here!"

Truth went outside and some kids started taunting her. They yelled at her, threw rocks at her and chased her out of town.

She stood near the edge of town, crying. Along came her friend Story. Truth said, "Story, I don't get it. I wanted to go shopping, but they chased me out of town. I don't understand."

Story said, "Honey, look at you. You're naked! Nobody wants to look at naked Truth. Let's get you dressed up. I've got some clothes in my bag. What size dress do you wear? Oh, you'll look good in this blue. How about some earrings? Makeup?"

Story dressed Truth up, and the two walked into town arm in arm. Everybody who met them said, "Story! Truth! So nice to see you!"

From that day to this, whenever Truth has gone into town all dressed up, arm in arm with Story, she has been welcome."

©2000 Priscilla Howe

Registration is open

We now have a flyer for "Going Deep: The Long Traditional Story Festival"! Registration has begun. Soon we might even have a webpage for this. My dream now is to have a waiting list. That shouldn't be too hard, as there are only 15 spaces for participants to stay for the entire festival (the evening performances are open to the public and we'll have space for larger audiences). I sent the flyer to the storytell listserv and a few other folks, and within a few hours I had two positive responses. Yay!

Sling me an e-mail if you'd like the flyer. It's in Word and looks best as an attachment (thanks, Liz!).