Once Upon a Time
My father told stories. From the time he got up in the morning, until he went to bed at night, he had a story waiting to be told. Mealtime at our house always began the same. Daddy would say the blessing, fill his plate with food, and begin another tale.
Most of the stories he told were taken from his own life, with the central characters being relatives and friends. He enjoyed humor, and was a master at embellishment, but there were serious stories as well. Detailed slice of life adventures were dished out to his children like potatoes from a stew. I often wondered how he managed to time the endings of his stories to coincide with the last morsel of food that rested upon his fork or spoon.
At bedtime, after my siblings and I had settled down, a strong, clear voice drifted from the back part of the house. “Once upon a time….”
Then came the old familiar fables we loved so well: The Brave Little Tailor, The Porridge Pot and, my personal favorite, The Three Little Pigs. The rhythm of Daddy’s words lulled us into sleep.
He would live to tell his stories to his grandchildren and to his great-grandchildren.
Years after his death my mother reached into an old trunk and handed me a worn and tattered manila envelope. Inside lay a packet of photos and the yellowed pages of a story titled Ol’ Jack’s Last Hunt.
I’d never seen the photos, nor had I read the story, but I’d heard about Ol’ Jack many, many times. According to Daddy, Jack was the best hunting dog that ever lived.
The photos I held in my hand depicted a young, handsome man standing in an open field that led to a wood. Three beagle hounds stood in the foreground as if in anticipation for a rabbit hunt to begin. The smart hunting outfit that Daddy wore gave him the appearance of a country gentleman, a man of leisure, instead of the sharecropper that he was.
We sat, my mother and I, and read the words of a story written long before my birth. And we wept. Wept over the pages and the photographs that had lain in a trunk for over forty years.
The aged envelope bore the address of a sportsman’s magazine based in New York. There was no letter of rejection, only the story and the photos that spoke of a man’s wish to share “a perfect day and a perfect hunt.”
Although Daddy was well read, his formal education was limited. He did not trust his own judgment when it came to putting things down upon a page. He’d given the manuscript to a teacher, who’d agreed to edit the story before it was sent out to a publisher.
The original intent, my mother told me, was that Ol’ Jack’s Last Hunt be a folksy little tale concerning a day of rabbit hunting. Nothing more, nothing less.
The story was genuine, written in the dialect of a man who wouldn’t have known how to “put on airs” if he’d tried. The teacher, however, in her eagerness to do justice to her profession, polished the story right off the page. The flavor of the hunt was lost, and poor Ol’ Jack was left out in the cold.
Circumstance did not allow for the services of a professional editor. Had Daddy been able to obtain those services, who knows what could have happened?
And now here am I, wishing with all my heart, that I’d listened more closely to the man who told stories. From beginning to middle to end, he knew how a story should be told.
Acclaimed authors tell aspiring writers to “write what you know.” And they are correct. What I know and love best is family.
I’ve been writing for most of my life, and professionally for eighteen years. In whatever I write, I can only hope to convey to the reader the honor I hold for this art.
Writing is never easy, but it’s worth the sweat of every sentence, because words were meant to be seen…and felt…and heard.
© Copyright 2002-2010 Gloria Dahl
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