When I was little, Papaw Cochran used to walk through the cattle field to our house every morning, his overall pockets filled with candy. He doled out sweets to me while he, Mamaw, and Papaw sat around the table to talk.
On some mornings, the three of them chitchatted about the cattle. Others, they discussed the weather or politics. But most of the time, they told stories.
The three of them had tales about everything. There were stories about boogers and other things that went bump in the night, tales about nearby places, and narratives about those long gone. Mostly they shared their memories.
As I got older, I noticed Daddy and my aunts did the same. At get-togethers, my loved ones circled around to share family stories. Before I hit double digits, I knew all of the Sanford family tales by heart.
This is how I learned the art of storytelling, not through performances at libraries or festivals but at the knees of my loved ones.
Oral storytelling in Western North Carolina has gone on like that for centuries, with each generation passing down regional myths and the memories of our forbearers to the next.
Of course, those memories aren’t exact retellings. Daddy used to say, never let the truth ruin a good story. He was right, but you don’t want to tell a flat-out lie, either.
To tell a proper tale, you’ve got to start with the facts. Then you add embellishments like seasoning, just enough for flavor. Too many, and you’ll overpower it.
The best storytellers are so good at it that you never can tell if they’re exaggerating. Those little falsehoods are part of the magic. They help reshape our stories of the past, coloring hard times with touches of humor and gratitude.
Mamaw’s tales of the Great Depression were told with nostalgia. They often emphasized the importance of being grateful for what you’ve got. While Daddy’s turned miserable memories into hilarious anecdotes.
Though my family is still full of talented storytellers, we lost some of the best over the years. Papaw Cochran passed in 1989. Papaw in 2004. Daddy in 2009. Aunt Pansy in 2012. Aunt Dolly in 2015. And Mamaw in 2020.
Luckily, their tales still remain. And my family still gathers around to tell them. It’s one of our most treasured traditions.
If you’re interested in Appalachian storytelling, you should join me at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games! I’ll be there on the 8th and 9th to share the stories of my kinfolk. I’d love to see you there!