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March 9, 2023

Storytelling is Important

Jordan, Circassians
Personal History

On our recent trip to Amman I spent hours sitting with my mother-in-law, Suzanne (pictured right), and listened to her tell stories from her life. She wistfully told me about the first time her husband kissed her hand when they were courting and about going to the cinema and watching movies every week as a young girl. Incredulous, she explained how her mother, at 17, had been living in the Golan Heights and was shown a photo of the man who would become her husband in Amman. She quickly packed her bags, said goodbye to her family, and was delivered to her new husband. She told me about how her mother died in childbirth and how her father remarried quickly and what a remarkable woman her stepmother was. There are wonderful stories about guests arriving in droves to their home on the outskirts of the city and what a fine reputation her father, Zakharia, had among Jordanian society. Although I don’t have children to pass these stories down to, I know how important these family legends are, and what we loose if we don’t listen.

During college I authored a book with a professor of mine, Dan Guillory, called Soy City Voices. Dr. Guillory was a storyteller, and much of his writing was about the lives of those we might not otherwise hear from. Our book was an oral history of workers, the people who had witnessed the rise and fall of my hometown, Decatur, Illinois. Once a prosperous city full of industry, surrounded my fertile farmland, Decatur in the 1990s was sadly on a most definite downward trajectory. There were frequent strikes by factory workers who were witnessing their jobs go to low-paid workers overseas. Sadly now, 30 years later, most all of those factories are completely closed and Decatur has really bottomed out. But by sharing the stories of Decatur, Dr. Guillory hoped to bear witness to the decline of cities like it, as has happened across the Midwest. 

Among the subjects we spoke to was my Grandfather, E. Frank Beaman. Born in Galt, Iowa in 1905, one of 14 children in a poor family who were itinerate farmers, my Grandfather was a self-made man. When we spoke to him he was already verging on 90 years old and he had seen Decatur in its heyday, been part of it’s flourishing society and seen it develop from a two-lane town to a place one newspaper wrote would be Illinois downstate Chicago! Of course that never was to be, but in better times, the 1950s, my Grandfather started the Yellow Cab Company (see him at his desk there in the photo below) and renovated countless beautiful old homes around the city. We were lucky to have such a positive, sunny, character in our lives for so long (he died at the ripe old age of 102). 

As I was sitting and thinking about writing this I hoped against hope that I still had all of those micro cassettes with my Grandfather’s interviews on them. Sadly, although I searched, I knew they’d been lost in one of our many moves. I had heartlessly discarded them. What I would give to hear his booming voice tell the stories he told all of us over and over and over again. How he’d skinned a horse that had been hit by a train on a cold dark evening. He sold that pelt to Giddeon Issac Covalt, at the general store downtown. Full of immigrants in its early years, Decatur had had a German school at the time and also a thriving Jewish community. All of these things were long gone by the time I was born there in the 70s which to me speaks of a uniquely Midwestern American desire to assimilate, to fit in and become some imagined ideal of “American.” All of the colourful characters my Grandfather used to tell us about had gone the way of the once vibrant downtown shopping district. Poof! 

Along with my Grandfather we spoke to auto workers on the picket line. We shared the story of a hermit on his farm on the outskirts of town. We spoke to an African-American man who had come to Decatur during the great migration from the South in the 1960s. A farmer’s wife told us about how much farming life had changed in her lifetime. Our job was to sit and listen as subject after subject told their story and what a gift those stories were and how lucky I was to be part of this project. My father is also a storyteller, although his subjects are strangers and the stories more urgently newsworthy. Occasionally he'd come back from some breaking news story and share the tales of the people he'd met and often the hardships they endured, but mostly my Dad kept his stories for work. It's seems almost inevitable that I would carry on with storytelling, albeit in a very different guise, as part of what keeps me humming.

What does this have to do with my mother-in-law, you ask? When I was working on my rebranding earlier this year, storyteller was one of the qualities that kept recurring in my skill set. It was definitely something I wanted to highlight because the stories behind food are as important to me as what we actually end up eating. To me, there’s not one without the other. I thank Dr. Guillory for fostering that kind of curiosity in me, of wondering and asking how we got to one place or another. Auntie Suzanne sharing her stories makes me feel closer to her traditions, makes me understand her more, and makes me want to take them forward as part of my husband’s mythology. My own mother was the keeper of stories in our family and when she died I felt an immeasurable loss in not only her, but in the family stories she took along with her that I’d carelessly not asked about or paid enough attention to.  My youngest sister Ellen has taken on much of my Mother’s role, but there are stories I fear we’ll never retrieve. So ask your family about the mythology of where you're from! I'm gathering as many stories as I can.

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