July 20, 2017

The Power of Storytelling

storytelling

By Caroline Taylor

My dad’s career as an Aerospace Engineer at NASA was elusive, mysterious, and at times, contradictory. I vaguely remember the day I discovered that when he went to work every day as an “engineer” he did not actually change into denim coveralls, a striped hat, and drive a giant locomotive. I am guessing I was about six years old.

 

On that morning, it was early, still dark outside, when my dad, wild-eyed and excited, started flipping our lights off and on and yelling, “Get up, get out of bed, the space shuttle is launching! We have to go watch!” I had no idea what he was talking about, but as my older sister, brother, and I crowded around the T.V., staring blankly at the giant rocket moving through a massive cloud of smoke, it dawned on me that my dad did not, in fact, spend his days riding the rails, pulling on the giant whistle cord, yelling “All aboard!” to awestruck strangers.

 

I didn’t realize that he was one of the many engineers who worked on the space shuttle, spending hours a day inside of an extremely loud wind tunnel (which would eventually claim most of his hearing), testing out different mathematical and scientific theories while converging with astronauts, physicists, and other brilliant engineers. As we watched the screen and listened to the countdown to lift off that day so long ago, I tried to feel the excitement, but secretly, I think I was a little disappointed.

 

Just last week, as I was driving my high school son and his two friends home from their water polo scrimmage, one of his friends asked me, “Mrs. Taylor, what is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you?” Admittedly, I was caught off guard to be included in their teenage conversation, but my mind flashed into my past. The image of my high school boyfriend lying in the hospital wearing a metal halo on his head, attached with two large screws surrounded in dried blood, came to mind. The phone call from his mom and her serious voice stating, “There’s been accident. You need to come right away,” was one of the scariest moments in my life. But, that scene was a little too morbid for the boys.

 

 Next, I thought about the terrifying moment when I thought I was, unwillingly, going to give birth to my first baby boy in France. I pictured my husband and I, and my giant swollen belly, explaining to the suspecting Airport Immigrations Officer that we were Americans living in London and were only in France for one night, just long enough to renew my Visa. I was more than nine months pregnant; it was the dead of winter, and neither of us spoke a word of French. As the officer finally let us cross through the border, we both breathed a sigh of relief and did not look back. I didn’t think the boys could relate.

 

My mind shifted to the next week, and being in labor on the taxi ride to Queen Charlotte’s Private Women’s Hospital in London. My husband was across town at work, and I was sitting in traffic with a tight-gripped cab driver who kept looking nervously into his rear view mirror and asking, “Are you ok, love?” as if he was ready to offer me a cup of tea and a scone with clotted cream. No, I was not okay, and could he stop being so damn polite? I was certain the boys would not want to picture this scene. Therefore, being that one of my son’s friends had just told of his scariest story about seeing a bobcat right outside of his friend’s back gate, in the hills of Los Gatos, I decided an animal story was safe. I settled on a story from our month long adventure in Africa.

 

“The scariest thing for me was the day my husband and I were on a safari in the Serengeti of Africa, and we were charged by a herd of elephants.” The boys were silent as I continued. “We were in an open jeep, and our driver couldn’t get the car started for a few minutes. The elephants started making these loud sounds and flapping their ears, and were charging toward us. I have it all on videotape. I am screaming, “Start the car!” to our driver, and the camera gets knocked sideways as we cross a river to get away from the herd. I knew the story sounded surreal to them, coming from a mom driving a minivan and passing out granola bars and Gatorades, but I like to mix things up a bit. Besides, I was enjoying reliving the moment.

 

For whatever reason, I have always found an intense satisfaction and value in storytelling, particularly when it involves parents telling about their own childhood and personal experiences. One night, when I was tucking my young son into bed, I heard him talking to himself (and answering), and I discovered that he had an “imaginary friend” whom he confided in regularly. Sitting in the dark next to his bed, I began to tell him the story about my own imaginary friend, whom I used to call “Mr. Magoo.” I explained how on days when my swim practices were long and very grueling, sometimes my arms would ache or my teeth would hurt from my braces, and I would cry in the water until my goggles would fill with tears. My friend, Mr. Magoo, would suddenly appear and cheer me on, saying things like, “Come on, you can do this thing. You are a star, keep on going!” I could feel my son smiling under the covers, although he did not say a word.

 

When my other son was getting ready for his first middle school dance, and was a little nervous, I told him the story of Bob Trundy. I described Bob as a skinny, blonde sixth grade boy who I had decided was the perfect object of my twelve year old affections. I  relayed to him how during P.E. class one day, while Bob was running on the track, I was smiling, staring, and waving at him, while walking backwards toward the locker room. Just as I turned around, I smashed straight into a metal basketball pole, head first. I described my embarrassment, as well as the stars I saw while trying to walk straight and with dignity. My son laughed and said, “You must have felt like a total geek,” to which I answered, “Yes, completely.”

 

Over the years I have taught my boys goofy and disgusting childhood songs about grimy gopher guts, scab sandwiches, monkey meat, and Miss Mary Mack. I have admitted to wearing nerdy elastic waistband pants, and having my friend, Marsha, accidently pull down my pants while grabbing me on the swing (my youngest son loves this story, especially the part where my friend laughed so hard she wet her pants and had to go to the office. He likes to call this, ‘bad Karma’ or ‘irony’). 

 

I have described in detail how we tied our plastic skateboards onto our bikes with jump ropes and rode down steep hills, made mud and tree bark pies in the gutter, and mixed up concoctions of household cleaners and much worse. Through telling stories, like the one where my brother and I cooked an egg in our brand new microwave and it blew up all over our faces and kitchen five minutes before my mom came home, we have discussed the advances in technology. They can hardly believe we used typewriters in college, and are horrified by my stories of what it was like to edit a twenty five page term paper with a bottle of white-out, a correcting cartridge, and many prayers to the writing gods that I didn’t make a mistake and have to restart.

 

Being that we have two cats and a guinea pig, my boys think it’s funny when I describe how we used to put plastic baggies on my cat’s paws just to see what he would do, and the shenanigans of Rusty the hamster, taking long, dangerous rides in my Barbie camper across the linoleum floor. I have seen the curiosity in their eyes as I have told of how we hooked tin cans together with strings and made phones, stretching from the neighbor’s bedroom windows to our own. Just the other night, my nine year old asked me if the tin can phones we made really worked, and if so, how?

 

When my boys and I have spent time with my best childhood friend, she and I have told them the stories of how we would stand on my bed with our microphones, pretending to be rock stars while singing “Sunshine, Go Away Today,” louder than the record player. Next, of course, I had to explain what a record player was.

 

At times, my boys have faced bullying, the boy ‘gang’ mentality, and friends who have suddenly turned on them, and, by pulling them into my past, I have helped them understand they are not alone.  One day, I described to them my eighth grade friends Kim (the bully) and Carrie (the innocent). I told them how Kim would call Carrie “triple F” behind her back, which I learned stood for “Football Field Forehead.” I gathered this information from a secret note passed to me by Kim during eighth grade English class. It contained a detailed illustration of Carrie’s head as a football field, complete with two field goals at either end, where her temples would be. Being the new kid at a brand new school, I explained to my boys how I felt ashamed, torn, and unsure of how to be friends with both girls when one was clearly a bully.

 

When my son faced something similar in sixth grade, I saw the perfect opportunity to relay the story of that fall day in high school when I finally told the Kim (the bully) that she should take a flying leap and just leave us alone. I described how Carrie’s (the innocent) jaw dropped, how peace was restored to our friendship, and how, after that moment, I walked just a little bit taller. I think the words sunk in, since later that month, my own son stood up for himself one day down on the football field at lunch, and tackled and held down a boy who had been trying to bully him for months. I am proud to say that the boy never bothered him again.

 

As an adult and a mother of three kids, I admit that at times I forget all of the different “me’s” I used to be, as if those people who did those crazy, adventurous, funny things were all different people, most of whom I might even like to get to know. As I pack lunches, drive my children to sports, attend meetings, and work, I try to remember the things that made me happy as a child, such as humor, swimming, skiing, writing, and spending quality time with good friends. In reality, I have not really changed that much over the years. I’m happy to say that I am still fiercely devoted to those I call friends. I ski as hard as my legs will allow, swim fast enough to still beat two of my sons, take writing classes, and I definitely love a good joke or witty remark. In fact, the other day my son and I came across some very silly poems I wrote in the fourth grade, which had to do with a boy named Mork who used to like to eat pork with a fork, but he became a real dork, and moved to a planet called Ork. I had no recollection of writing these words, and yet there they were, telling their story about who I used to be, and giving my son and I a real laugh. 

 

In storytelling, I believe we share not only who we are, but also who we were, where we came from, what we have learned, and who we have become over the years. When I tell my oldest son about what it was like to join the high school ski club and not know a single soul on the flight to Utah, I can see he is secretly energized. And when I describe what the Mona Lisa looks like in real life to my nine year old, who wants to be an artist more than anything in the world, I can sense the wheels turning in his creative brain and the connections he is making with his own life. Somewhere down the road, my boys may want to become engineers, mathematicians, teachers, or artists, and they will create their own stories along the way. I imagine they will go on many trips and adventures and will always want to learn about the world in their own way.

 

In the meantime, I will keep on telling my stories, in hopes they become inspired to go wherever their dreams may take them.

 

Caroline Taylor is the mother of 3 sons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Ann Van De Water says:

    Great piece! I enjoyed your stories very much. It is certainly mind-boggling and entertaining for our kids to learn we are more than just “Moms.”

    Ann

  2. Caroline Taylor says:

    Thanks Ann…I agree! I really like your writing style and humor..keep your articles coming!! What a great place to share our stories and experiences in parenting!

    Caroline

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