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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth's Fifth Annual Winter Solstice Seasonal Storytelling Special

Air Date: Week of

With the winter solstice upon us, and the daylight hours at their shortest, we here at Living on Earth are taking a break from the news to tell stories of a different sort: the kind often told around a warm fire on a snowy night. In years past we've featured winter tales from around the world. This year, we decided to stay in our own backyard to savor stories of winter in New England. We invited to our studios two veteran storytellers; Jay O'Callahan, from Marshfield, Massachusetts, and Tom Weakley, from Burlington, Vermont. Hear stories about the miracle of healing and song, social justice undoing hypocrisy, Einstein's miscalculations, a tourist's disillusionment with Vermont, and the man and the mule. So, sit back, relax and enjoy a Living on Earth tradition at this holiday season... it's story-telling time for the next half hour.


CURWOOD: With the winter solstice upon us and the daylight hours at their shortest, we here at Living on Earth are taking a break from the news to tell stories of a different sort, the kind often told around a warm fire on a snowy night. In years past we featured winter tales from ancient Greece, Europe and Russia, as well as the legends of Native Americans and Eskimos. So, this year, we're looking into our own back yard, to savor stories of winter in New England. We invited to our studios 2 veteran storytellers, Jay O'Callahan from Marshfield, Massachusetts, and Tom Weakley from Burlington, Vermont. And Tom starts us off with a tale about a curious character named Bucky Grimm, who had a passion for one particular animal.

WEAKLEY: The things Bucky liked to acquire was mules. Bucky had kind of a run of mules, and he was always looking for a good mule, and he'd been over to Glastonbury to take care of his wife's mother. And he was coming home one day, went by a barnyard, and by God there was a beautiful mule all white, perfectly white mule. Well, Bucky lost his heart to that mule, and he went up to the farmer. And he says, "What do you take for that mule?" Farmer says, "Two hundred." Bucky said, "I'll give you 130 and I'll give it to you right now in case." "Sold," says the farmer, "You've bought yourself a mule." Bucky says, "Well, I'll be back in 2, 3 days, and I'll pick that mule up in my truck."

Three days later Bucky came back with his truck, and the farmer came out looking kind of glum. Bucky says, "What's the matter?" "Well," the farmer says, "you know that mule you bought." He said, "That very night that mule went belly-up. Yep," he says, "he's graveyard dead. And since you'd already paid me for the mule, I figured your mule died, not mine."

Well, Bucky realized he'd been impulsive and he'd paid in advance for the mule, and so he said, "Yes, okay, that's true." He thought a minute and he says, "I believe I'll take that animal anyway."

So the farmer got his backhoe and bucket loader, dropped it into the back of Bucky's truck with a whole bunch of snow, of course, and Bucky went home with it. Next morning Bucky was all over Bennington putting up posters. Poster said, "Win yourself a beautiful white mule. Dollar a chance. See Bucky Grimm."

By golly, Bucky sold about 200, 300 of those tickets. And a week after the raffle, then this farmer from out in Glastonbury, he saw Bucky down on South Street in Bennington. "Bucky," he says, "I guess you must have had a lot of people upset about that, getting a dead mule."

"No," Bucky said, "just one."

So the farmer says, "Well," he says, "whatja do about him?"

"Well," Bucky said, "I did the only honest Vermonter thing. I gave him his dollar back."

(Curwood laughs)

O'CALLAHAN: That's wonderful.

WEAKLEY: All these stories are old, old, you know, they just travel around the country and around the world. That's a Vermont version.

CURWOOD: Vermont these days is almost a boutique. It's an image to people who don't live there.


CURWOOD: Is there a story you like to tell about the tourists who come?

WEAKLEY: Oh, Lord, the woods are full of stories about the tourists. They're just full of 'em. Well, there is this story about the fellow who was pumping gas in this ski town, and the people had come up from down-country, you know, to ski and have a good time and everything. They were looking for a little evening night life. They stopped off the mountain and went to this fellow for gas. So, while he was putting the gas in, the man said, "Well, we thought we might take in a movie tonight." He says, "Can you tell us where your theater is?" And the fellow pumping gas says, "No, we don't have a movie house in town."

"Well," he says, "okay, how about -- " He says, "We like bowling." He says, "Where would I find the bowling alley?" And the fellow pumping gas says, "Well, we don't have a bowling alley, either, in town."

So then the fellow from down-country said, "Well, that's okay." He says, "Well, we're hungry, anyway." So he says, "can you just steer us to a good place to eat?"

And the fellow pumping gas says, "No, we don't have a restaurant in town."

Well, by this time the guy from down-country is getting a little peeved. So he says, "My God," he said, "what do you people do around here for excitement?"

The fellow puts the nozzle back on the pump and he says, "Well," he says, "mister, this is Vermont. We don't get excited."


CURWOOD: Jay O'Callahan, you don't live in Vermont, you live in a little more urban setting, huh?

O'CALLAHAN: Yeah, I live in Marshfield, close to the ocean down on the south shore.

CURWOOD: Of Massachusetts.


CURWOOD: Just outside of Boston. I'm wondering if you can bring us a story for this dark time of year.

O'CALLAHAN: Yeah, let me tell you a story that is a story about growing up. I grew up in a neighborhood that's called Pill Hill. Still called Pill Hill to this day. A neighborhood of big old-fashioned houses, and we moved in when I was 7 years old, second grade. Thirty-two rooms. My parents were teachers and they had no money at all. But they had an eye for mansions on the cheap and they found this 32-room house for sale for almost nothing, because no one wanted to heat the great big houses after World War II.

So we got this house. I loved the house. Guests would come and I would say, "Can I take your coat?" One woman said, "You certainly may not." (Curwood laughs)

But we did heat the great old kitchen. There was a wonderful Franklin stove and it had these big red cheeks; I loved that in the winter. And we'd go sledding right outside. We were right on the top and there was a women's hospital at the bottom. So we called it Forceps, Forceps Avenue. W'e'd slide down so fast there.

And Christmas Eve, I loved the light in the darkness on Pill Hill. When I was 7 and 8 and 9, it started when I was 7, we would run down the outside back stairs in the dark, on Christmas Eve. Be very cold. Climb over the snowbank, and we'd start to run across, to the Grahams' house. And I would turn and look at our house, and it would take my breath away. This great house was in darkness. But there would be a candle lit in every window. My oldest sister Maureen, she was 9 at the time, the most responsible person in the world, she would take Dad all around the house, light those candles. And it was stunning. Maureen never forgot anything. But anyway, then we'd run to the Grahams, and Dr. Graham would take all the neighborhood kids all over the neighborhood. And it was so special. Dr. Graham ran the Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain. He was a migraine headache specialist, and he would work 7 days a week till 9 or 10. But he would come home early, a few days before Christmas Eve, gather us in the living room. And we would rehearse, and we wanted to just belt out the songs, but he would bend over, conduct us, with the shoulders, his hands, his eyes. And we would sing "Venite." He would say, "Quiet, quiet, quiet." "Venite..." Then he would stand up a little more. [Louder] "Venite..." Then he would stand all the way up. [Still louder] "Venite adoramus, Dominum!"

We felt important, 'cause music was as important as medicine to him. Well, then came the Christmas Eve when everything was different. I was so excited that Christmas Eve, I was 10 years old. But mom was so different. She's always full of energy, not that day. Mom was tired and something was all wrong. She'd given birth just a couple of days ago to my baby brother Christopher. I had 3 sisters, but now I had a brother, Christopher, and he had this huge name. My name is Jay, it's so small, but his was huge. [Loudly] Christopher! I could see him in my mind, with his diapers, carrying the car home: "Christopher's home!"

Well, Christopher didn't come home. Mom came home without him, and she said, "Something's wrong with his heart but he'll be fine."

Well, the day grew late, Christmas Eve day. Wasn't quite dark. Mom, she was thinking about Dad, he was shopping with Uncle Neal. That meant he might come home festive! Just when it got dark, phone rang. She picked it up, and the doctor said, "Your child is dying; there's nothing he can do." [Whispers] And he hung up and it was so abrupt.

Daddy came home, and he was furious when he heard that. He called the hospital and he said to that doctor, "That is no way to tell anyone their child is dying. We'll be right down."

So we all went down. Down in the cold Christmas Eve. Up to the third floor, down the corridor, and then we looked through this thick glass, and there were the tiny little babies and one of them was blue. It was Christopher. He was dying. Another doctor came over and said, "Listen, there is a new procedure. We replace the blood. And there's a chance, we'll know in a few days." So we went home not knowing if Christopher would live or die. And Dad, he had helped Mom up those huge stairs, down into her room. He came out of the room, and just before he shut the door, he turned and he said into the darkness, "Helen, get some sleep. You'll be fine."

He shut the door and there were we in the hall. And Dad said, "There's nothing we can do, you just hope for the best. Why don't you go Christmas caroling?"

So we ran down the outside back stairs, climbed the snowbank, ran to the Grahams. Doctor Graham took us all over that neighborhood, it's a huge neighborhood, and he always knew who was hurt and who was lonely. Who needed help. So we would go to different houses, and it took a couple of hours. We were coming over Pill Hill, freezing and it's all over, and we all looked up at the same time, and there's our great house in darkness. But there was a candle lit in every window. Daddy did it by himself. And Dr. Graham said, "We're going to sing one more carol; I want you to do this very well."

We did something we'd never done before. We went by our front door, round to the side. We were standing in the snow, looking up at Mother's window, which was all black. But there was a candle lit in the window. And we're all singing The First Noel. And suddenly, Mother was standing. We could see her in the window. She had a white housecoat on; she looked like an angel.

It was 10 years later that we were just finishing the Christmas caroling on Pill Hill, and Dr. Graham said, "One more carol." It was a ritual now; we always went and sung to Mother's window. We were singing up to the window and I'm in my college sweater, singing The First Noel. Mother appeared, the way she always did. And then I looked in the dark and my older sister Maureen was crying. I thought, "What is she crying for?" And then I realized, "Oh, she's just been married, so she's moving away."

And then I realized she was crying because she was standing beside Christopher. He was 10 years old. And that's a story, "The Darkness on Pill Hill." Christopher loves that story.

WEAKLEY: I'll bet. Oh, that's great. Wow.

O'CALLAHAN: He's lucky to be alive.

WEAKLEY: Oh, gosh.

CURWOOD: So, a theme in your storytelling, Jay O'Callahan, is the power of healing at this dark time of the year. It's when a lot of sickness and death comes. But you speak of the power of healing here.

O'CALLAHAN: Yes. I really do think this is a healing form. And I think the peoples long before us knew that. The Native Americans knew that and still know it. When you tell a story, whether it's formally in a theater, or you're just sitting around a studio or you're with a child or friends, there's something very inviting about it. You invite the listener into your world, into the characters you see, and they see them. And in that very process of inviting, I think there's something healing about that. It's let's enter this world together, whatever it is. Let's see the mule together, let's be in Vermont together. Let's go to Pill Hill together. Whatever you say, you're asking someone, you're trusting them, come on into this world. And one of the healing parts is voice. You know, the sound of a human voice can be very healing, if the pretension is gone and nervousness is gone, and you're just saying to this child or to this friend: let me tell you this. Your sharing of your breath, your voice, your rhythms, your sense of language, your sense of life. So in that sense, Steve, I think it's always healing.

CURWOOD: Here at Living on Earth, we've done storytelling at the winter time, at the winter solstice, every year since the program was started. Why do we pick winter to tell stories? Tom?

WEAKLEY: Well, I think because we're not able to do a lot of other things. The things that we did, especially in New England here, that we did the rest of the year, get put aside for winter. And one of the things that the farmer will do in Vermont is, he will order things. This is when the mail order catalogues came out, when he would buy new equipment and go someplace to look at new tractors and things, or the tractor salesmen would come around in the winter because they knew they could catch the farmer there. He'd be, if he wasn't listening for stories and milking, he had time to listen to a pitch about tractors.

CURWOOD: Jay, what do you say?

O'CALLAHAN: Well, I know that I think of stories as fiery. And when I grew up in Pill Hill we had a wonderful fireplace. We used to gather around late at night, too. And there was something wonderful about the light. We would turn off the electric lights, and we would have the flames. And that seemed to encourage imagination and memories. And there'd be real stories and imaginary stories. And the same thing going off to New Hampshire. We would go up in the winter time after Christmas, to a little farm house that had no electricity. So I think it's a time when it's dark, and somehow the imagination is more at home, I think, with mystery than with obviousness. It's more at home in the dark than it is with electric lights. There's something vaster about life than electric lights, let's us believe. And we're reminded of that in the dark, in the winter time.

WEAKLEY: It's a drawing-in time.

O'CALLAHAN: Yes, it's a drawing-in time.

WEAKLEY: I think, when I hear you say that. Those words come to my mind. And we are reflective.


WEAKLEY: At that time of year.

CURWOOD: And what about the end of the cycle? 'Cause there is, you know, beneath all this, at the darkest time of year, there is this -- well, death is in the air, isn't it?

O'CALLAHAN: Yes, oh definitely. A death and a sense of rebirth, sense of hope, that the light will come again. That's kind of -- that's old for us, but I think it's deep inside us. You know, will the light ever come again when the shortest day comes? And then there is always the hope that it will and there will be rebirth and there will be newness. And that awakens something deep. You know, stories essentially are very, very deep. They come from the mystery within us.

WEAKLEY: And the stories that last are all stories of hope. A story won't last if it's hopeless.

O'CALLAHAN: That's true.

WEAKLEY: Nobody tells that story again.

O'CALLAHAN: That's true.


O'CALLAHAN: Yeah. You can write those stories but you can't tell them.


O'CALLAHAN: Somehow the breath and the presence has to touch hope. It's very mysterious about this form.

CURWOOD: Jay, I wanted to ask you. Stories help us understand things, right?

O'CALLAHAN: Mmm. Mmm. Let me mention one, briefly. The story of Einstein in November, when it was cold in Berlin, sitting up late at night, writing equations on the back of an envelope. And then staring at the envelope, and it couldn't be right. Because if it was right, then the whole story had to be changed. If it was right, the universe was moving, expanding. But everybody knew the story, it wasn't expanding. So he fudged the equation, because he couldn't quite believe it. And a couple of years later, when his fudged equation was out, a Russian physicist mathematician looked at this and said, "My gosh, if he just shifted this it would mean the universe is expanding! I've got to tell him this!" And Einstein wouldn't believe it until he went and he looked through the telescope, it was Hubble, and saw the universe was expanding. He said it was the biggest mistake of his life. Because he was caught in the story there, and he had changed the whole story for all of us. I love that story.


WEAKLEY: Well, I'm not a scientist. I don't think in terms of science. But when you talk about explaining things and the hows and whys of things, you know, Vermont is thought of as a very taciturn state. The people aren't receiving, receptive, of new people. And that's just not true. And we have stories about that right in my own home town, that's still told a century after the Civil War. Told about events there. And we're reminded that Vermont lost more men in the Civil War per capita than any state in the Union. Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery. So, those things we are reminded about, when people say, "Well, God, how standoffish Vermonters are."

CURWOOD: Mmm. So you must have a story for us --

WEAKLEY: As a matter of fact, yes. Right. This is a story that was recorded by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a great American novelist and citizen of Arlington. She tells it about her great grandmother, whose name was Almera Holly Canfield. And the Hollies and the Canfields are still very much a part of Arlington. And Almera Holly Canfield was a small but feisty old woman. She was a force to be reckoned with in town and was somebody very big in the hierarchy of the St. James Episcopal Church, which was right across the street from her home.

Well, it came to her attention at some point that there was a woman living up in Sangate, which is just the next town over, and high in the hills, that was referred to as a dark woman. And she never came into town. She did, I think, once, and she had such a reaction -- Vermont is the whitest state in the whole Union, remains so to this day -- that she never came into town again. Well, this was terrible for Mrs. Canfield. And so her great grandmother said, "Well, I'm going to do something about that." She found out that the woman was Indian or at least had some Indian blood in her. So she did have a darker skin. And everybody said, "Don't bother her. She's shy. She's like a deer. If you go to her house, she'll run. And she'll run inside the house."

"I don't care," she said. "I'm going to try."

So she had, it was coming on to Christmas. And she had her nephew get the sleigh, just a small, like a 2-man buggy on runners. And she went up there to, up Sandgate Road. And as she got closer she could see this woman was out in her yard, that she'd shoveled the path all along where the clothesline was. And she was hanging up the wash. Before that sleigh came to a stop, this old lady, grandma Almera Holly Canfield was out of that sleigh and over there with that woman, helping her hang up wash. And saying to her, through a mouth full of clothespins, she was saying, "Oh my! Don't you get this? How do you get this wash so white? Do you put salt in your soap?" And she got this woman talking and the next thing they knew they were in the kitchen and they were sitting there and mending hose, and shelling beans or something.

And she was talking to the woman about, was she planning to come to church for Christmas? Woman said, "No." She said, "I don't have anything decent to wear." So grandma Holly Canfield says, "Well, let me see your church coat." So the woman comes out with a big black coat, you know, from floor to ceiling, coat like everybody wore in those days. She said, "Well, your coat's just as good as mine, every bit." She said, "Well," then the woman said, "well, I don't have anybody to go with, and I feel kind of shy about going by myself." So our great grandmother said, "Well then, that's all settled." She says, "You come down to my house. I live right across the street from the church. You come to my house on Christmas Day, and we'll all go to church together. I'll be out on the porch with my daughter and granddaughter."

Well come Christmas Day, into town comes the big old lumbering sleigh, the farm sleigh, with the man, his name was Thompson, and this woman, his wife. And she got off there into that marble mounting block, and stepped off and started up toward the porch where these 3 women stood. Now, it was Dorothy Canfield's aunt who tells the rest of the story; she was a little girl then. And she said: This woman started up the walk toward us. And we couldn't believe what we were seeing. Sure, she had on her long black coat. But over the coat, because she was a farm woman who thought when you dressed up, what you did was put on a fresh apron, on top of the coat she wore a bright gingham blue and white starched apron. Well, she said, my mother and I stood there. We could hardly contain ourselves. We were having to put our hands up to our mouth, when we could feel, on the back of our necks, we could feel the iron grip of great grandmother Almera Holly Canfield. And first thing we knew, she was turning us around, back through the door of the house, and she called over her shoulder, and she said, "Now, wouldn't you just know it? The girls and I have forgotten to put on our aprons!"

She took us into the house. She rummaged around for the brightest-colored aprons she could find. We all put them on, over our black coats, marched across that muddy street to St. James Church, aproned from chin to ankle, and went into the church. And by now, of course, the church was filling with people. They walked down to the Canfield pew, which was right down front. and as they went down the aisle with these bright garbs on, great grandmother was looking in the eye, right and left as she went by each pew, frowning, defying people to say or laugh at their procession as they came down.

When the service was over, the rector greeted Mrs. Thompson at the door. And he said, "Mrs. Thompson, it's so good to have you worship with us today. I hope you'll come back." And Dorothy Canfield Fisher said: she did. She came back every day, the rest of her life, that she was up to it. But never again wearing her apron. Because in the ensuing week, great grandmother Almera Holly Canfield let it slip that it wasn't always necessary to wear your apron to church.

(Curwood laughs)

O'CALLAHAN: What a beautiful story.

CURWOOD: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you both for taking this time with us. In this storytelling season.

O'CALLAHAN: Thank you. It was a delight, Steve.

WEAKLEY: Yes, thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: Tom Weakley and Jay O'Callahan, thank you so much.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Today's stories were produced by Jesse Wegman and David Winickoff. Jay O'Callahan's recording, "The Spirit of the Great Auk," is available on cassette from Artana Productions. And Tom Weakley's award-winning "Harry and the Texaco Boys" is also available on cassette from Highland Publications. Check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org for details.



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