One time we were having a spelling bee and one of the “fine ladies” from the Church was giving the words. Finally she said one word I just didn’t know—“ee-MINCE, ee-MINCE”—just like that [said in a high, squeaky voice]. Several people in front of me sat down. Finally there was just me and a bigger boy left. And she said it again—“ee-MINCE, ee-MINCE.” The boy couldn’t spell it, so he sat down and it was my turn. She said the word again— “ee-MINCE, ee-MINCE.” I looked at her, and I said [in a loud, disgusted tone], “Immense—I-M-M-E-N-S-E—Immense!” And I won the spelling bee.
A personal narrative told by
my grandmother in the late 1950s
The saddest day of my life was when my grandmother died. We used to take walks— over to the college woods or past Mollie Cupp’s house. And she told me stories—things my father used to do when he was a boy, things her family did on the farm when she was growing up—so long ago—things like making bricks from yellow clay or finding arrowheads in the fields, or some things I never really understood at all, like castrating pigs. Often we would sit on her porch swing—Grandma lived right next door to us in her “little brown house”—and she would snap beans or pit cherries and tell me about how she learned to play the piano just by picking out the chords to match the hymns she had to accompany at Sunday School. And she would come over and pound out “Oh Them Golden Slippers” on our old upright.
Some things always remind me of Grandma—poems by James Whitcomb Riley, the smell of coffee and toast in the morning, certain songs like “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” and “Away in a Manger,” the old Seth Thomas clock that used to hang on her wall, the Santa Fe railway that used to carry her out to California to visit Aunt Mary. But most of all, I feel like she is really still here and a part of me when I think of the stories she used to tell. In fact, these stories are perhaps the more precious reminders, since they scarcely have an existence outside my memory. Oh, occasionally someone in the family will refer to one of Grandma’s stories, and for a brief time, we indulge an exclusive nostalgia. But, for the most part, I must rehearse them to myself for my own personal enjoyment, for Grandma told stories that nobody else knew, except maybe a few family members who had heard her tell them before.
My grandmother told personal narratives, stories based on real experiences, interesting little anecdotes about herself. Unlike fairy tales or legends or tall tales or jokes, personal narratives are not usually perpetuated in tradition much past the lifetime of the stories’ main character. They may for a while enter the repertoire of the extended family or a tight-knit group of friends, but eventually the stories fade, for much of their color came from the animating voice of the person who had the experience. The “personal” is a magic ingredient in such stories. For the teller and the listeners, so much of what a personal narrative means is outside the narrative itself and inside the intangible memories and feelings engendered by the relationship between the teller and listener and the teller’s personal world.
Personal narratives are best heard as they live—on the warm breath of the teller, in the resonant shell of the listener’s ear. Then their purpose is clear: like any literary performance, they are there to move us, to excite us, to entertain and teach us. In the world outside of academe, the storyteller’s responsibility is simply to be an adequate practitioner of the literary genre he chooses. It is the responsibility of the listener or reader to be moved, to respond. Sometimes the narrator takes some of that responsibility upon himself; he is moved by his own story and performance, and his own response leads his listener to a shared emotion. I can tell you that I responded many times to my grandmother’s story of the spelling bee. I was amused, I was impressed; no matter how many times I heard the story, I never was bored by it but rather was always intrigued by my image of her as a young woman and touched by her willingness to create a story from her life and share it with me. I can insist that she was an “adequate practitioner” of the genre called personal narrative. And, in terms ill suited to scholarly analysis but nonetheless meaningful in the real world, I can easily defend her success as a “literary” artist. For the one overwhelming and undeniable fact about her spelling bee story is that my memory of it brings her immediately before me, conjures her up, if you will, just as she was known to me when I last heard her tell the story.
When a person tells a personal narrative, he or she invites someone to know him, to know her, intimately, personally. Such a person is very vulnerable; he may be repulsed or misunderstood. Like physically intimate encounters, such verbal encounters carry the risk of rejection along with the promise of pleasure. Usually, however, a person tells personal narratives only to those people who want to know the teller better. This is not a conscious motive, of course, but it is a basic directing strategy of the genre. One gets to know someone else by sharing experience; intimacy is our word for the exciting sensation that comes with our perception of someone else in our personal world. We “know” others and assume that they “know” us when we believe we have shared a similar perception of a mutual experience. The knowledge one gains as a listener when personal narratives are told brings with it the sensation of intimacy, our feeling that the telling and the listening are an exclusive exchange where we come very close to seeing each other’s reality. The successful teller of personal narratives engages the listener in an adventure—not simply the plot of a story, but rather the shared activity of exploring the teller’s world, the teller’s identity.
The teller’s identity is the listener’s treasure; there is a treasure in each story—not the text, not the transcript, but the experience of hearing another voice, of seeing—if just for a moment—someone else in a subjective world. Like my grandmother, people who tell personal narratives celebrate the intimacy that lets their listeners discover their identity. I knew my grandmother very well. As I was growing up, I saw her nearly every day. There were many things I did not know about her. In her stories she never mentioned that her hair had been auburn when she was a young woman, not that it ever really mattered. But I am sure when she told her spelling bee story, she saw herself standing there tall and straight with her auburn hair pulled up into a knot the way girls did then. When I try to visualize the story, I see her with short white hair and gold-rim glasses, about seventy-five years old, standing near the old wooden wash bench she used as a coffee table, and looking east out of the triple-set casement windows in her house across the yard toward our kitchen window. The story happened for me there in her living room; that is where I learned to know a little more about her. I did not learn (then) that her hair had been auburn, but I did lean that she was not easily intimidated. I learned that she was a good speller and proud of her knowledge, that she enjoyed competition, that she was not afraid to be “smarter than a boy.” I learned that she had little use for fancy women who tried to project an air of superiority through affected speech. And there were some things she did not talk about in the story that she allowed me to fill in for myself—things which demonstrated subtly how well she knew me and how much she assumed I already knew about her.
The “text” she gave me was a map, a sketch abstracted from the multidimensional reality of her experience, her culture, her self. Critics applaud the novelist’s careful development of a fictional character. How much more amazing was my grandmother’s gentle artistry that found a way to glimpse reality! For the character in a personal narrative is neither a crafted fiction nor an exaggerated stereotype. My grandmother knew who she was, yet she wished to explore, even at seventy-five, who she was becoming. Her story of the spelling bee was imbued with new meaning each time she told it. And that delicate map—the text—how many invisible fibers of meaning attached to its sticky surface! But I could not see all of those fibers, only those we shared. And like the reader of literature, I must bring to the text my own strands of meaning. The map must be paced by my feet and “read” through my perceptions. Yet the artistry of the personal narrative exploits precisely this dilemma. My grandmother knew tacitly those aspects of our culture, our family’s past, her life and my life we already shared. By inviting me to participate, by demanding that I match her unspoken allusions to her personal world, she ensured some correspondence in meaning, some real transmission of the reality she felt. The treasure I gained by pacing the map was a glimpse of the pearl of great price, another person’s soul.