In my family, it's a story about my grandfather. This would have been sometime around 1942, in a tiny town in southern West Virginia, where my grandfather, Sam Setrakian, owned and operated a saloon dubbed, with some inaccuracy, the Sanitary Lunch. One day, Grandpa decided it was time to teach fourteen-year-old Eddie, my father, how to drive. There were no classes, no books, barely any conversation — just an old pickup truck parked along the bank of a creek.
As Dad recalls, every time I ask him about it, "So we get in and I turn the key, and the truck takes off, lurching [he starts laughing here] . . . and immediately turns and dives down the embankment — it was about ten feet down [laughter getting very quickly more intense] . . . and Sam's yelling in this Armenian accent, 'Sheeft! Clotch! Goddamn it! Sheeft! Clotch!' [by now he can barely wheeze out the words] . . . and I look over just in time to see his big, bald head clunk on the windshield. . . . Oh, my God [laughter completely uncontrollable by now — with me laughing too]."
Of course, no one was hurt. Grandpa lived a long and happy life filled with funny, interesting, sad, wise stories. I thought a lot about all those stories as I left last year's Tellabration — drunk with laughter and filled with wonder, once again, at the power of the spoken word.
Tellabration is a national festival hosted locally by the Ann Arbor Storytelling Guild at Genesis of Ann Arbor (St. Clare's Episcopal Church / Temple Beth Emeth). I got there a bit late, and the big sanctuary was nearly filled with people of all ages, listening intently as several local tellers warmed up the crowd with their best tales. I particularly connected with Jeff Doyle and his goofy, scary story involving a family camping trip, a dark Upper Peninsula outhouse, and bears.
Then came the big guns: featured act Elizabeth Ellis, all the way from Texas. I don't know what I expected in a "featured storyteller" — maybe someone flashy and wordy and clever, all dressed up. But Ellis, a plump, grandmotherly type in ordinary clothes, ambled up to the lectern and simply spoke. It was a breathtaking performance to witness — like a neurosurgeon at work — and yet so sweetly workaday. First, she told about getting lost in a big Texas city and getting a flat tire. Characters appeared, flared briefly, and faded away — the haughty, dismissive staff of a megabucks evangelical organization where she sought help, a homeless man on the street. It was so layered and magical and real, her timing impeccable, her delivery effortless and casual, her impact extraordinary. She wrapped up her set with a story about Wal-Mart and roses.
It's been a year, I took no notes, and yet I remember so much about that night — and about the time Aunt Margaret fell into the Connecticut River and floated for miles before she was rescued, still clutching her purse. And the time Cousin Dave caught that weird fish. . . .
Tellabration returns to Genesis on Saturday, November 10, with a kids show at the Pittsfield Branch of the Ann Arbor District Library the next day.
[Review published November 2007]