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The Stories We Tell

I have a column due in less than 24 hours. It is not yet written, but, instead of writing it, I am sitting under an oak tree in the backyard at a picnic table (at which, it occurs to me, I’ve never had a picnic), staring at ground dimpled from the hard rain that came last night. Somewhere in the brush nearby there is a dove cooing. His call and the rustle of the leaves are the only sounds. The temperature is 94 degrees. Anybody with half a lick of sense would be inside in the air conditioning. I am startled to see two red leaves at my feet. They are tiny, each about the size of an address label, and mottled. Their stems are short and each one narrows to a thin point like holly. I noticed the other day that the sycamore leaves are getting a bronze cast to them and there is a little gold on the wild grapevines that twine in and out of the maples and scrub oaks in the branch, but this – two little red leaves – make it clear that summer is, as it always does, fading. It may be the heat that eventually sends me back inside, but I think it’s the melancholy, the pensive sadness that the two red leaves injected into my mood. It will be weeks before the days are noticeably shorter, a couple of months before anything like a chill greets me at the back door, but already I am grieving. I love summer. And she is leaving me. I sit down, stare at the computer screen, wonder if perhaps the turning of the seasons should be the subject of the as-yet-unwritten column. It is a fleeting thought. Fleeting because it occurs to me that I may have already said just about everything there is to say about the first school bus rattling down our dirt road and the scent of fields being burned off and the wistfulness that descends with the withering of the last hydrangea. I’ve been writing about such things for a long time; I have written about the enticement of school supplies and the way purple and gold wild flowers spring up overnight, about peanut trailers and hurricanes, about good harvests and bad. Is it possible that there are no new stories to tell? That I have reached the point of repetition? But, then, isn’t repetition the very nature of story? Don’t we begin every fairy tale with “once upon a time”? It is, I think, to remind ourselves that we are not alone, that there is nothing that has happened, is happening, can happen to us that has not already happened and been survived once upon a time. The best stories are always told from the universal point of view, the perspective of relating to the whole of humanity. The best stories are the ones that sound familiar when we hear them for the first time. The best stories, the very best stories, have something about them that make us say, “Me, too.” I am reminded of my father’s lifelong invocation of the Deuteronomic exhortation to rehearse it in their ears – to never stop telling stories of persisting through challenge, of defying the odds, of remaining loyal to a cause, a goal, a person. Because a story told over and over is a story that is believed. Perhaps, then, I haven’t said everything there is to say about the end of summer, the arrival of fall. Maybe there is in the red leaves a recognizable memory, in the cooing of the dove a familiar refrain. Maybe the melancholy is less a sadness than a goad, a prod, a gentle nudge to keep telling the stories. Somewhere a school bus is slowing to a stop, its brakes squealing in the afternoon heat. Somewhere a leaf releases its grip and glides to the ground. Somewhere the growl of a combine reverberates across the landscape and into the sky. Copyright 2023

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I have 5 grandchildren ages 10-15. They often ask me to tell them a story of when I was a little girl. By now they have heard most of my stories. I sometimes start with "I've probably told this one to you before" at which point they say, "That's OK, tell me again!" So, yes, stories told over and over are a good thing! And, like you, my stories are set in rural Bulloch County!

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