When I was four, as I recall it, I told my first story. Not a lie, mind you. But a story of importance.
Mama was sick one Sunday so Daddy and I had gone to church together. There, at Dewberry Baptist Church, I sat in Sunday School with a few other children and listened intently as the teacher taught a Bible story. My petticoats were spread out on the tiny ladder-backed chair, my delicate, white socks were ruffled with lace and my black patent shoes shining.
When we returned home, Mama had welled herself enough to be in the kitchen, frying chicken. Until Daddy died, Mama always felt a responsibility to tie on her apron and cook up a hearty meal. I don’t recall one morning of my growing up life that Mama wasn’t in the kitchen bright and early. I always awakened to the sizzle of homegrown sausage and the comforting smell of buttermilk biscuits baking in the oven.
“How was church?” she asked as Daddy pulled off his suit jacket and tie.
“It was a good service,” he replied, going on to say a few words about the message.
“Did you learn anything in Sunday School?” she asked me, as she turned the chicken in the big black cast iron skillet.
“Yes, I did,” I announced, straightening the sash on my dress. There, my feet pressed firmly on the red and white, 12-inch tiles of our little kitchen, I lifted my shoulders and delivered my first dramatic storytelling.
It was the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who had climbed into a tree to watch as Jesus passed by.
I did not miss a detail of what the teacher had read. A few sentences in, the story became so enthralling, apparently, that Daddy, rolling up the sleeves of his dress shirt, ambled into the kitchen to listen, and Mama paid me the ultimate compliment by pulling the cast iron skillet off the hot eye of the stove and turned to listen.
Finally, I delivered the bold punchline by putting a hand on my hip, lifting my arm and shaking a finger then quoted Jesus as saying, “Zacchaeus, you come down from that sycamore tree right now. I am goin’ home to eat with you!”
Daddy and Mama exchanged a look. Daddy tried to hide a slight smile. “There you go, little’un. That’s exactly right.” Then he threw back his head in what I would come to know as a gesture of joy and chuckled under his breath.
Mama said nothing. She shook her head, smiling, and turned back to the frying pan of chicken. It did not occur to me that I had done anything of significance until a few days later. Some friends had stopped by the house to visit and, as is the tradition in the rural South, we had walked out to the car with them. Mama, my sisters, and the company, stood in the front yard, talking while I hovered nearby, hopscotching and examining a couple of rocks.
“Ronda,” Mama said, “Tell them that the story you told me Sunday when you got home from church.”
I stopped and immediately went into performance, again ending with the dramatic command from Jesus. Pleasing smiles began to cross each face and when I had finished, pelts of laughter rang out.
“Now, how do you like that?” Mama asked my first audience, still laughing. “Pretty good, huh?”
I realized right then on a gravel dirt driveway on Rural Route One that I had a gift for something and that a story could be a unifying force. Mama, in the ways of our Appalachian folks, had not complimented me in the kitchen that day because she didn’t want me to think more of myself than I oughta.
When the time was right, she simply encouraged me.
Importantly, she taught me the mighty power of a good story.