There are some stories that sweep through the ages. Clare Murpy told these kinds of stories, timeless tales of heroism and archetypes and the hero’s journey and epicness. Then there are stories that trickle down through generations, loved and told and retold until they’re soft and yellowed around the edges like an old family photograph. They aren’t the kind of stories that change who we are–they’re stories that give form and shape to who we are now, as people, as Hoosiers, as a family. These are the kinds of stories Lou Ann Homan told in the premiere of her new storytelling piece, “Gathering Coal for the Lord” as part of Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s Frank Basile Emerging Stories Fellowship.
Lou Ann told the story of three generations of her family–her grandparents, her father, and to a lesser extent, herself–set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. But in a way, it’s more than the story of her family; they’re the stories of every family.
Before the show, Lou Ann lined the stage with family photos and urged us all to come and look. When she began her set, she noted that as she listened to people as they perused the faded and cracked images, there was one common refrain: that’s my family. That could be my family. We all have the same photos of unsmiling ancestors on their wedding day, of masses of people crammed into a Model-T or posing with a baby swallowed by a lacy dress. We’ve all got that crazy grandpa who slept with a shotgun beside his bed, that uncle who ran shine during the Depression, or that grandmother who built bombs during the War but never talked about it after.
This is the story of all families, of all Hoosiers, of anyone who ever lived through hard times. We hear stories of heartbreak and deprivation, of when parents who could not feed their child took them to a farm and didn’t return for three years. We hear how that family was finally reunited and scraped together a living selling horseradish sauce and rosebud salve in a little red wagon in the streets of Fort Wayne. We hear how they spent all their money to buy cornmeal, beans, and coffee, enough food to cobble together a meal for the sad-eyed men at a weekly mission.
Their son, Ralph, played the piano at those missions. He’d learned to play when he’d lived on that farm. The piano he played on was missing keys, but that was all right. He learned to play around them. And if that isn’t a metaphor for living in any era, I don’t know what is. Ralph played that piano for those men, who never came up to the altar to find Jesus. Not one. They ate their beans and cornbread, listened to that boy play, and left, unsaved.
Years later, Ralph asked his father what he’d been doing there. Why did they sacrifice so much to hold those missions for those men when it never accomplished anything? “They didn’t need to come to the altar,” he said. “The altar came to them. The altar was hope, and it was enough.”
Lou Ann’s telling is simple and unaffected, the kind of storytelling that happens by happenstance when families get together. At the end of the performance, she brought her grandson on stage. “The circle goes on,” she said as the boy picked out “Amazing Grace” on a piano which did have all the keys. And if all the notes weren’t quite right, I don’t think anyone minded.
One of my biggest regrets is that didn’t gather stories from my father’s family when I had the chance. That piece of my history is forever gone, save for a few scraps of memories we have written down. My grandfather always wanted to tell those stories, but we weren’t ready to listen. And now we can’t. Not this side of heaven, anyway. So even if you couldn’t make it for Lou Ann’s performance, carry her message with you. Ask your family for their history; gather the stories together like pieces of coal flung from a passing freight train, picked up and saved to heat a struggling mission.
Let those stories keep your circle unbroken.
My tickets were provided courtesy of Storytelling Arts of Indiana. I was in no way obligated to write about the event and received no compensation.