By Naomi Baltuck, © 1994

A poor widow was living with her two sons and daughters-in-law. She was shamefully treated by all four of them. She had no one to turn to with her woes, so she held them all inside. As time passed, she grew fat. Her sons

and their wives mocked her for this and then cruelly withheld nourishment. Still, as the old woman's misery grew, so did her body.
One day, when she was able to bear the pain no longer, the old woman walked away from the house and down the road. She had no idea where she was going, but followed the road until at last she saw a decrepit old house; there wasn't even a roof left. The old woman found herself strangely drawn to the deserted house and so stepped inside.

Before she could stop herself, she was telling the tale of her grievance against her first son to the wall in front of her. As she finished, the wall collapsed under the weight of her sorrow and went crashing to the ground. The old woman felt her body grow lighter. So she turned to the next wall and told it about the cruelty of her first son's wife. Down came the second wall, and she grew lighter still. She told the third wall the sad tales about her second son and the fourth wall her complaints against her second son's wife.

When she was finished, the old woman stood in the wreckage, but she felt lighter in body and spirit than she had in a long, long time. And then she went home.

--From VOICES OF INDIA by A.K. Rumanujan--

I am not a therapist; I am a storyteller. But over the years, I have learned to use storytelling to knock down a few walls of my own.

I was already interested in the healing aspect of stories when my mother died, but nothing could have prepared me for the shock. She was good-humored, gentle, strong, and pleasantly quirky, and had gifted her children with an unorthodox upbringing. When I was eight, she was widowed with seven children at home, one developmentally disabled. Even the oldest kid wore second-hand clothes passed down from our "rich relatives." Yet, each summer Mom would go into hock to give us summertime travel, gypsy-style, in a VW bus. After my father died, we would travel for two months each summer, from campground to campground, occasionally parking our battered tent-trailer in the backyard of a distant cousin. Mom took us to the 49 states she could drive to. Traveling over 1200 miles of gravel on the Alaskan Highway, we had nine flat tires. By the end of that summer, every kid could change a flat. We stopped at every scenic viewpoint, historical monument, and national park along the way, living on peanut butter and high spirits.

Somehow my mother managed to instill in her children something as valuable than anything our rich relatives possessed. She sent us into the world with the sturdy foundation built of strong and loving family ties, and a basic belief that things always turn out for the best.
In 1989, my mother lost a long and painful battle with cancer. I went home to Detroit to nurse her through her last months. I never saw such suffering. One complication of her illness was the worst case of shingles the doctors had ever seen. Shingles is a nerve disease; just the vibrations of someone walking into the room caused her intense pain. Because it's also highly contagious; she was denied the comfort of her grandbabies as she lay dying. Then the cancer reached her brain. The woman who, just for fun, had memorized the Iliad in classical Greek, and did crossword puzzles in German, French, and Italian, could no longer read a newspaper.

Throughout her ordeal, she never lost her sense of family or humor. Late one night I sat on one side of her bed, sharing her pillow, and my brother Lew held her hand on the other side of her bed. She smiled and said, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could have eight interlocking beds?"

It just got worse, and then it was over. One moment she was there and the next, though I still held her hand, she was gone. There was no heavenly music, no cosmic vibration, no ghostly chill. She was just gone.

In the months that followed, I found myself haunted by other ghosts. What else could we have done? Were there things we should have said? Why did she have to suffer so? I had hoped to take her to Europe, to give her grandchildren, to see her hold my babies in her arms and give them her blessing. And no matter what my mother had always told me, I could no longer believe that things always work out for the best. I searched for some way to deal with the loss and disillusionment.

Then I remembered: I am a storyteller. Somewhere there was a story that I could learn, tell, and that would heal me. I pored over books like Goddesses in Every Woman, Close Companions: Stories of Mothers and Daughters, Womanself. In one of those books I felt certain that I would find a story, the story. But I never did. There just wasn't a story that could carry me beyond the last tortured months of my mother's life.
The holidays drew near. For a distraction, I sought out fresh holiday material. During the daylight hours I read folk and fairy tales, but at night, I lay in bed recalling Christmases from my own life. Bit by bit, they shaped themselves into a story of one particular Christmas at our house, with my mother, brothers and sisters all prominent characters. The story gelled to the point where I could tell it to myself as I was going to sleep. Soon after, my mother came to me in a dream. I am very down-to-earth, but in my dream, my mother was helping me "rearrange" my new life without her, right down to the furniture in the house I had just moved to. And she gave me fresh-baked cookies to take with me.
That Christmas I shared my story with an audience, and it was very well received. My audience felt good, and I felt good. I had moved forward by moving backward to happier times.
All the stories I had pored over were someone else's stories. I needed to tell my own. Memories, sweet and bittersweet, flooded my mind. Reminiscing with my siblings brought tears, laughter, and more stories. More than ever, we could feel the sturdy foundation of strong and loving family ties, the greatest gift a mother could give.

Some part of my mother lives on through her stories. They give her a voice, and are my way of honoring her. Each time I share one, I feel as if I have spent a little time with her. They are also the only way my daughter will ever be able to know and love the grandmother she never met. Once, when braiding my three-year-old daughter Eleanor's hair, I told her, "When I was your age, my favorite part of the day was in the morning, when my mother would brush and braid my hair. She was always so gentle." Without thinking, I added, "I wish you could have known your Grandma Eleanor." My daughter replied, "I do know her, Mama. Tell me about the time Grandma Eleanor took you up the mountain."

I have gone on to explore forgiveness, coming of age, self-reliance. I use story, not to elicit sympathy, but to paint pictures that trigger recognition and meaning for others. This is not difficult. The memories that ask to be told are usually the ones that we have in common, and we have much in common.

Someone once told me, "I'd like to tell personal stories, but it's all too depressing." Not all of the stories we tell must end happily ever after. Sometimes it is enough that they shed light upon a truth, point us to a better path, or help us to accept what we cannot change.

Traditional tales can be as effective as personal stories in the healing process, while providing a more comfortable distance. A storyteller once told me that a selkie story she had told a hundred times--about the seal child who comes to the childless couple, grows up, and returns to the sea--had taken on deeper meaning for her, when her own daughter began preparing to leave home to go out into the world.

Each teller must find her own comfort level. If you censor the pain from a story, you can strip it of its power. Still, I choose to leave listeners with a bright spot to focus on, hope for the future, a triumph of spirit that will never die, an appreciation for the blessings they have had.

Once, after sharing a story about my mother, a woman from the audience slipped a note into my hand. She had recently lost her mother. She wrote, "My grief was relieved, my private anguish was touched here, in this very public place...somehow my pain is lessened after sharing in yours. I feel instructed now; I will go home and look for a story to tell myself." As I read the note, I thought of my mother. Things don't always work out for the best, as she used to say. Few people would choose loss and pain, even to obtain wisdom or compassion. But it helps to think that one might use one's experience to lighten another's load.

Healing is an ongoing process. However time might soften feelings of sadness and loss, there is a place in our hearts that will always bear the scars. Momentous or seemingly insignificant events can reopen old wounds. We can't wave a magic story wand that will let anyone live painlessly ever after. As the old story goes, no one can find a cooking pot in the village that has not been used to feed the grieving. It is up to each of us to look for the bright spots. Everyone has stories to draw upon. By shaping them into learning experiences, into celebrations of the human spirit, we become the victors instead of the victims of our past.

Recommended resources for younger listeners:
Christmas Moon, by Denys Cazet
Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs, by Tomi de Paolo
Sadako and the Thousand Cranes, by Eleanor Coerr
Ten Good Things About Barney, by Judith Viorst

Recommended resources for older listeners
“The Clubhouse.” Naomi Baltuck. Winter/Spring '92 Storytelling World.
“The Cowtail Switch.” Harold Courlander. The Cowtail Switch.
“The Crack of Dawn.” Donald Davis. The Crack of Dawn.
“The Gazelle,” Jane Yolen. Favorite Folktales from around the World.
The Healing Heart," Alison Cox and David H. Albert.
Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories, Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis.