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LITTLE ORPHANT ANNIE, THE STORY TABLE, AND THE MEASLES *

I was a lucky boy. The once a week trip to town from the farm for groceries always included, as well, a trip to the Carnegie Library. My clearest, early memory of home was of mother in one chair, father in another, a stack of books at both their elbows.

I recall, too, the similar good fortune of hearing my father's voice wrapped around the poems of James Whitcomb Riley -- this was Randolph County, Indiana near the small town of Union City --"Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay, / An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away, . . . "

To this day I am enchanted by dialect, by real voices informed by local culture. I believe that had I not had such a "language-rich" extended household as I did, I would never have gone on to write a single, published word. This early start I earnestly believe was far more important to my development as a writer than all the university education I would later receive.

Lucky. In many ways. I was sick a lot as a kid and, though I doubt that I thought of it as lucky at the time, I wonder now if, in fact, it wasn't. There were endless days spent under the counterpane deep inside the wonders of countless books. Those sure look like lucky days now.

John McGahern, the Irish novelist and short story author, has written: "There are no days more full in childhood than those that are not lived at all, those days lost in a favourite book." I believe a good part of my childhood was so lost.
I remember my grandparents, the supper table there, how when the dishes were 'red up' we would continue to sit for what seemed to me hours at a time. We would stay put, sitting and talking and, I realize now, story telling -- the rich reminiscences of the old ones mixing with the day's gossip and news: whose cows were down sick, how great grandad had shot a wildcat in the woods behind the very house where were now sitting, giant black snakes, the talk from the Wednesday night prayer meeting.

It was all there, creating what I think of now as a story table. It is a table I fear is lost from most of our families, a table I feel we must re-create as authors, teachers, librarians, wherever we encounter children today, a table at which not only do we bring our stories, but at which we, too, sit and listen.

My favourite remark from the large wisdom of Thomas Merton is this: "The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit upon it." I like to have that chair in mind when I think of our children, their chairs, and the tables around which they gather. Which of us knows how precious each of those lives may be?

My wife and daughter and I live in a simple house in the foothills along the Ohio River. Here and there goes on the kind of independence, self-reliance, neighboring, and husbandry that I value and which reminds me of the energetic attentiveness necessary to pursuing any craft and so nurtures, in part, my own writing.

To paraphrase Wendell Berry I find that region, in the sense that it matters to me, is a place where "local life is aware of itself." I have nearly always lived in such places. I know the name of the next ridge and the creeks and hollows that surround it. I know the man next door and he knows me. And he, too, knows these names. And with these and much else we can still speak with a shared language and a shared knowledge of our community. This is what matters most to me about the place where I live.

I have always lived in neighborhoods, places where people have known each other. Whether next door or out the ridge, there were names and faces known and trusted. Living in the foothills of West Virginia along the Ohio River these past thirty years has given a singular blessing to my work as both poet and children’s writer.

An earlier version of this text originally appeared in The Companion, Inkwell Press, (11/96) Frostburg, MD.

 

 

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