Living to tell about it

Thursday, April 10, 2008

April 10, 2008

Dear Leslie,

When I was a boy my mother was in a trio called the Mama-nettes. They sang McGuire Sisters songs and performed at events around town. They sang regularly on "The Breakfast Show," a show still running on the local TV station. My dad went to work very early in the morning, so in order to sing on the show my mother dropped my brother Scott, my sister Sally and me off at our Granny's house. She would feed us biscuits and gravy, and then we'd settle around the stove in her living room to watch Mom and the Mama-nettes sing on TV.

This was a surreal experience even for an 8-year-old. One moment Mom was waving goodbye to us at Granny's house, minutes later she was shrunk inside a little box and all the color had gone out of her.

I don't mean to be disingenuous. It wasn't as if I thought she'd really been shrunk and faded out. But television was still relatively new. Most everybody had one by then, but only men in white lab coats really understood how a picture of people in one place could be transmitted to a box in your living room. Do you know anybody who understands it yet?

Granny didn't seem to have any trouble with the concept. She had grown up in the country and remembered seeing her first car.

Granny had seen all sorts of newness in the 20th century. Lights, for one. Radio, the atomic bomb and television. Granny didn't understand how the Earth could be round, since it looked flat to her, but she didn't have any trouble understanding television. Except she thought that Matt Dillon really was the marshal of Dodge City on "Gunsmoke." That Miss Kitty really was his girlfriend, that Matt's deputy Chester really limped.

Nothing her grandchildren could say could change Granny's mind about that. The proof was right there every week in black and white.

The first Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival was held last weekend in tents near the riverfront. The city's downtown percolated as people walked from one tent to another and filled the restaurants. Downtown should always be like that.

Each storyteller was unique. Listening to Sheila Kay Adams was like sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee while she recounted how the northern lights appeared in the sky over her Appalachian hometown one night, scaring the fundamentalist Baptist citizenry into believing the end days prophesied in the Book of Revelation were at hand. And how her mother, now gone, had raced to the church where the frightened were praying to quell their fears with the "N" volume from the encyclopedia.

They were way better than television. The crowd favorite was probably Donald Davis. Davis has the same Carolina accent as Andy Griffith, another TV sheriff Granny looked up to.

He told a story about his own harrowing birth, only recounted to him at age 37 by his father, elderly by then. In the hospital, the doctor had given Davis' father a choice. He could either save the life of his wife or save the life of their baby. Davis' father had had to raise his own brothers and sisters when their own father died young, so he had waited until his 40s to marry. He chose to save his new wife. "I didn't know you," he would later tell his grown son.

The mother was saved, and the baby was born, so badly misshapen by forceps nobody thought he'd live. Of course he did, and lived to tell about it. But something unspoken remained between father and son for 37 years.

Remember that each moment of life is precious, Davis said, leaving lumpy throats in the audience.

My brother, sister and I eventually stopped trying to convince Granny she was wrong about TV. You come to realize that nobody knows everything.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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