When I was a child, I loved listening to my Gramma tell stories from her childhood. Hearing her stories shaped me in ways I am still just beginning to understand; the teacher I am today is in part due to her stories surrounding me when I was growing up. I even wrote a blog post for Nerdy Book Club last year about how my Gramma and her stories have impacted my teaching. I have a copy of a family ancestry book that a distant cousin self-published and distributed years ago that contains a few of my Gramma’s stories, ones she wrote herself to be included in the family history. This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of my Gramma’s birth, and reading those stories in her own words, now that she has been gone for almost fifteen years, allows me to hear her voice in my head and makes me feel as if she is right here, telling her tales once again. She was a natural storyteller, a writer, even if the wider world never recognized her talent.
In the years before my dad died, my mom, sister, and I practically begged him to write down some of his own stories – we wanted to carry on my Gramma’s tradition of keeping history alive for the other side of our family. But my dad was a reluctant storyteller and would only occasionally open up enough to give us basic details about his childhood – taking the time to write down his stories just wasn’t in his heart. My dad has been gone for three years now, and I find myself longing for a way to “hear” his voice again, the way I hear my Gramma speak to me when I read her stories. This longing got me thinking about my own children, and how they love to hear me tell stories from my childhood, and how someday they may want to be able to hear me tell my stories again. So, as a little side project in my spare time, I’ve begun writing the stories of my childhood.
I grew up in a small town that was pretty isolated, not near any big cities, and in a time when things moved slower and were more innocent than they seem now. My kids are fascinated by this because they hear me tell stories of staying out playing in the neighborhood all day until sunset (I would never allow this now), or of having to drive to another town 90 miles away just to buy new shoes for school. My hometown still has a drive-in movie theater, one middle school, and one high school. Everyone knows everyone; I went to school with the same kids my entire life, and many of us are still close today. This concept is somewhat foreign to them because we live in a suburb of a large metropolis, surrounded on all sides by other suburbs, any of which could fit several of my hometowns inside. Many of the kids they go to school with move a lot, changing schools and towns often. Living in my hometown was a way of life my kids won’t experience for themselves, but I want them to know about it and be able to dip into that world and be able to share it with their own children someday. The unexpected surprise of this project is that not only is this a gift for my children, but for me as well; as I write my own stories, many of which include my dad, I find myself hearing his voice again as he speaks to me through my memories. He, and other relatives and friends who have been lost to time and distance, come alive on the page as I record these stories. I’m sharing one story about my dad below, one of my favorites. I think my Gramma, writer and storyteller that she was, would be proud.
A blast of air-conditioning, filled with the scents of leather and new upholstery, washes over us as we enter the front doors, a bell jingling to announce our presence. My mother, sister, and I weave through the maze of new furniture to the glassed-in cubicle in the back of the store. Daddy is inside it, speaking into the microphone, and we hear his voice surround us through the store’s speaker system, his real voice muffled by the somewhat sound-proof glass of the station room. When the red ON AIR sign goes off, we’re allowed inside his tiny world of radio waves and records. As long as I’m quiet, I get to thumb through the wooden crates of record albums, stacked as high as me. I find my favorites – Dolly Parton (because I like her laugh), Willie Nelson (because his braids are awesome), Barbara Mandrell (because she’s beautiful), and Merle Haggard (something in his voice sings to my soul, plus I met him once).
Daddy holds my hand with one of his, and shakes the man’s hand with his other one. I stand close, staring at the man’s boots, knees, belt buckle. I hear snippets of grown-up conversation.
“…met years ago…don’t remember me…radio station…the recording studio in…New Mexico…nineteen-sixty-…”
“Sure, sure, I remember…yes…long time ago. Who’s this we have here?” I listen more now because it’s clear the man is talking about me.
“This is my daughter,” Daddy says.
The man leans down to my level and pokes one finger into the underside of his hat’s brim, raising it up higher on his forehead and exposing more of his shaggy brown hair. He reaches out to shake my hand, and I place my small one in his. “Well hello there, young lady,” he says with a nice-sounding chuckle in his voice. “It’s mighty nice to meet you. My name is Merle Haggard.”
While I look through albums, Daddy catches the world up on the progress of Let’s Trade Even, his Saturday morning radio show. Armando traded an air compressor for Frank’s lawn mower, and Becky traded a crock pot to Judy, who needed a weather radio. With that business concluded, Daddy places the needle on the spinning vinyl after announcing the next songs. Headphones on ears, mouth to microphone, he speaks using his radio voice:
“Alright, folks, remember: if you have somethin’ to trade, and need somethin’ in return, give us a call here at the station and Let’s. Trade. Even. Thanks for listening on this Saturday morning to your local station, KAVE FM Radio. Up next is Ronnie Milsap, followed by George Strait’s latest hit.”
I make my selection and pull it from the crate. My sister, who is too little to care, holds my mother’s hand in the corner of the station. Daddy pushes some buttons, takes off his headphones, and swings the microphone off to the side.
“Come here, punkin’,” he says, patting his knee. I carry the record in its cover over to him and he helps me climb into his lap. He takes the record from me, and his sideburns tickle my cheek as he looks over the top of his glasses at my choice. “Glen Campbell, huh? Rhinestone Cowboy, I bet?”
I nod while he sets the record aside and squeezes me to him. I rub my finger on the smooth surface of the pearl snap buttons on his shirt pocket, my nose filling with his smell of Old Spice aftershave and black coffee. Ronnie Milsap’s voice fills the station, the furniture store, and our little town:
Pure love, baby it’s pure love
Milk and honey and Capt’n Crunch and you in the mornin’
Pure love, baby it’s pure love
Ninety-nine and forty-four one hundred percent pure love
Ronnie Milsap is right. It is.