“How does a moment last forever? How does a story never die?” These are the first two lines of the title song to Disney’s 2017 live-action movie, “Beauty and the Beast.”
The song suggests that love is what we should hold on to, even if it’s not easy. Despite the hard times, somehow memories and the love we remember from them can protect us; helping us to persevere. Love filled memories allow our happiness to endure. Even when the moments have passed and everything else has been forgotten, the love that we remember still manages to exist. These moments become our life story.
I have spent most of my adult life as a storyteller in the performing arts. There may be stories in our lives that could be worth forgetting; that doesn’t make them less a part of who we are. Those “bad times,” can become stories of hope for others and may be the most powerful stories to tell. All stories are worth holding on to. Stories that get us through whatever life’s challenges may be.
Memories are an important part of our personal history, and storytelling can help us preserve and share those memories with others. By sharing our experiences and memories, we can create a record of our lives and our personal history. Those common events in time aid in our connections with others as well.
An example of storytelling that I have treasured throughout my life is when I have been given the opportunity to tell a story about a recently deceased family member or friend. This may be as a eulogy, but more often, it is in a group setting of those that have gathered as mourners. There are several ethnic and religious communities that practice this tradition. Within the Jewish religion, mourners welcome hearing and sharing stories and anecdotes about their loved one. These stories can be shared over the course of shiva and into the weeks and months beyond. Christians often practice this same storytelling and anecdote tradition in a gathering of mourners during a meal that follows a formal burial. Storytelling is all about keeping a memory alive. A time alive. A person alive. For as long as we tell “their/our story” that memory, that time, that person, in that moment is alive.
For thousands of years, storytelling has been a means to overcome difficult times with a sense of hope. The Gospel of Luke and “The Road to Emmaus” is a good example. Two men walking along the road. Both disappointed and disillusioned with what has recently occurred in Jerusalem with the death of their friend. As they walk in silence, a stranger comes upon them. They are unaware that it is the spirit of their recently deceased friend in a body they do not recognize. The stranger asks them why they are disheartened. And both men begin their story about the man they had followed for several years who was recently convicted of a crime he did not commit and was put to death. They told the stranger of the good times, the miracles, the meals they shared, the bond that was created among their friend’s followers. And, in the telling, their own hearts were lifted. They spoke with passion and laughter. They forgot their disappointment, their disillusionment and their “hearts were ablaze” with the memory and hope of better times; through their storytelling.
One of the most difficult eulogies I have ever delivered was for a beloved cousin of mine, Nancy. She was more like a sister than a cousin and close to my age and the age of my younger sister, Annie. Nancy lived in the upstairs apartment of our house with her parents (my mother’s brother, Nicky, and his wife, Margaret) with a baby sister on the way. The three of us spent our whole childhood together. Growing up, our house was the center of family gatherings for my mother’s side. Every Sunday there were droves of people, music and food at our house on Nestor Street, in West Warwick, RI.
When the upstairs apartment became too small, my uncle purchased a home in Coventry when Nancy was 9, as was my sister Annie, and I was 10 years old. Annie and I were devastated when Nancy moved. We loved and missed her so much that my sister and I would walk from our house on Nestor Street to Arnold Road in Coventry. It was not a short distance. A little over 3 miles and a little over an hour to walk, one way. Nancy missed us, too. She would walk half way, and then we would either go to her house or walk back to our house, together.
You may ask, “Where were our parents?” “Three miles on a secondary highway, small kids and no one watching after you?” I can’t remember if any of us had a bike. Bike’s were a luxury for poor kids, so I am guessing we didn’t. Back in those days, I am sure there were plenty of disappearing children. You just didn’t hear about them like you do today. And we knew that Nancy always had half of that journey alone no matter which house we decided to go to for the day. It worried my sister and me and I can still remember how we would stand on Tiogue Avenue, at the halfway mark, and watch Nancy walk back home until the place where the road curved and she disappeared around the bend.
Even as a kid, Nancy was funny. Not funny– hysterical. She could always make us laugh. She was one of those kids you should never sit next to in church. Nancy always tried to figure out how to get into some trouble without getting caught. She was a master at developing several scenarios as excuses “just in case we get caught,” and would make us rehearse them insuring we had the same story. Nancy had an uncanny sense of rhythm and would practice all the latest dances of the 60’s – she would teach us steps to be sure we were always “cool” on the dance floor. This was important, as there were lots of weddings back then and a live band every time.
Not long after Nancy moved to Arnold Road, my Uncle Nicky passed away as a result of heart failure. It was a blow to my aunt and cousins, but my Aunt Margaret, Nancy and Debbie, her sister, remained together at that address. They later built an addition and Debbie moved upstairs with her husband; raising three children. It is Debbie’s home with her husband Danny – even to this day.
Nancy lived with her mother her entire life, never marrying, and we all enjoyed dinners around their table which were filled with so much laughter and food that it was always difficult to leave regardless of the lateness of the hour or how long you had been there. It was a home filled with love, and Nancy was the center of it. When Debbie had her children, Nancy was the aunt that doted on Little Danny, Brianna and Nicky spoiled them rotten and loved them to the moon and back. Family was everything to Nancy. Not just her immediate family, but the extended family on both her mother’s side and father’s side. She was always creating family reunions, picnics, back-yard barbecues. Anything, to get us all together. And as members of our families began to move away, or pass away, there appeared to be an even greater need for Nancy to get us together whenever she could. Nancy, like her mother, was an incredible cook. She prepared Italian food that mirrored Aunt Margaret, who was Scilian. No one made a better meatball, tomato sauce or snail salad. And no one comes close, today. Her home always had something on the stove (typical RI Italian-American kitchen) and there was enough available to whomever dropped in.
On my mother’s side, first cousins have remained close even to this day. But Nancy was one of the most beloved. When she died, it was as if I was 10 years old again, knowing she was moving once more and our lives would be forever changed. But even as I write this, “my heart is ablaze” with her memory and I am finding myself smiling. I can see her. I can hear her. She is alive again; right now, at this very moment. And, as you read this, she now lives in your heart, too.
“How can a moment last forever?” Go on… tell your stories. Tell them around a table. Write it down somewhere. Video or audio tape it. Begin. You will be happy you did. Those who hear it will be happy, too. And those whose story you are telling? They will throw back their heads and laugh with joy; for they live again.