Friday, June 17, 2011

Sirens singing, story telling and preserving tradition

My little son is far too observant for my own good.  A few weeks ago, we saw Pirates of the Caribbean at the drive-in.  This little boy was completely enchanted with the mermaids in the film (including their rather savage portrayal gleaned from centuries worth of sailor's stories).  Their singing and beauty captured his imagination.  I had laughed at my husband's slightly horrified reaction to the screen and commented that they screenwriters had done their homework.  Then I didn't think much about it again for a bit.

Of course, I didn't realize right away how much he had absorbed.  A few days after the film, he met me in the hall coming out of the bathroom.  He smiled up at me and started to sing in a soft, haunting voice, "Come cuddly me, come cuddly me".  He took my hands and slowly started to draw me down the hall towards the living room.  I was absolutely captivated.  I'd never really heard him sing on his own before (yes, I know he likes to scream, I mean sing, weird stuff in the car when the music is craned up- "Hit the Road, Jack", "16 Tons", "Jilted"- a very odd assortment), but this was different.  He was testing out an idea he had seen to see if it work on me.  It did.  He told me he was singing like a mermaid and then proceeded to pretend to eat me.  I couldn't help it; I laughed.

It was amazing to me that a three year old can instantly grasp centuries worth of folk knowledge and internalize it so quickly.  Both of my sons love mythology and folklore, not always a story books, but often as oral tales, transmitted from my memory to theirs.  They aren't afraid to grasp for reassurance that the world is a magical and mystical place.  They even remember that it is dangerous.    They keep these little pieces of the world's heritage inside them.  If they remember, especially if they remember the storytellers, they are touching the past and the future at the same time.

People complain that I let my kids watch weird stuff and I tell them faery tales, not read them to the boys.  I use stories to teach and illustrate, because I am aware of how much power oral tradition has.  Stories handed down from generation to generation through the traditional method of storytelling preserve a piece of the past that no book can capture.  When my great grandmother died, I was 19.  Sitting with the family in my great-aunt's living rooms and sharing stories, it turned out I knew something know else had every heard about her childhood.  It was little, mundane detail, but it was precious because of that.  She and her sisters lined up each morning for their mother to braid their hair into pigtails.  Not an uncommon hairstyle for the era, but the fact that Grandma had hated and there for thought it was hilarious that I, as a teenager, would were my hair in pigtails by choice.  Every one was stunned at first, but then they laughed, it was exactly the sort of thing we all remembered her commenting on as we grew up.  I have worked in museums, which has also given me an incredible opportunity to here the details of history in oral form from the descendent's of those people who actually lived it.  Preserving tradition, through storytelling, can be an incredible way to get into touch with the past in a very real and personal manner.

So, spend sometime telling stories to the children in your life.  They may not understand the reasoning, but they can appreciate the story, and who know, maybe you will be preserving an irreplaceable piece of the past, long after you are gone.  Go ahead, bridge the future and the past.


  1. You are so lucky that your family has preserved traditional oral story-telling. Growing I was lucky if someone read me a story at bedtime, but with my own children I lavish upon them stories, thoughts and ideas. I wanted them to remember and feel connected to the process in a way that can be so easily lost nowadays. What a lovely post. Also I am now a big fan of your 3yr old reminded me of 5yr old daughter, who decided to use her great powers to call down the rain lol ^_^
    Be Blessed*

  2. Aren't kids wonderful in their ability to embrace their own magic? Oral tradition is part of my heritage as much as it is part of my academic background, but it is certainly a magic of its own.

  3. I LOVE that. I can't wait to do the same thing with my daughter. We read her stories from books because it is easier, but there are a lot of folk stories we will be telling that we know from memory as well. Oral tradition is becoming lost these days, everyone wants everything faster. Thanks for the awesome story! Your 3yr old sounds adorable. I bet he and my muffin would get along fabulously!

  4. Why wait? Start telling her stories now. I'm sure they would get along famously!


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