The Original Storyteller

I’ve always said that good stories need good endings. But, good or bad, all stories come to one. We are living stories and one day each of us reaches the last chapter. This week my family was stunned to learn about the death of one of our closest friends, a woman most of us always called Auntie Joanna.

Auntie Joanna was one of those “special aunts”, who earned her title by personality and compassion rather than biology. For much of my childhood, of course, I thought we were distantly related somehow. The truth is we should have been, but our families have been close enough for it not to matter. Auntie Joanna and my grandmother were friends growing up here in Canada, and with their husbands they both became missionaries in the Dominican Republic. Their children played together, went to school together, and we still occasionally have reunions which feel like returning to the long-lost extended family.

A memory: Auntie Joanna is at the front of the church, all the children sitting on the floor in front of her including myself. She’s got a hand puppet to entertain us while she teaches. But…beforehand, I was told a specific answer to give when she asked a particular question of everyone. I am the plant in the audience to make sure everything goes smoothly, and it does. Because if there’s one thing Auntie Joanna will be remembered for (though I’m sure there’ll be more than one) it will be for her stories.

She loved them, not only to read and listen to but to tell. She could hold not only children spellbound, but all of us. Different voices for different characters, an animated face whose default position was a slight smile, and no tangent from the main plot that wasn’t interesting. She was a master of that old art form which is almost lost in this day and age: the oral story. But whenever I think of her it’s not a specific event or memory or story that I turn to. It’s more the feeling of her that I remember, what it felt like to be around someone who loved and cared for everyone that much.

My final memory of her, or at least what I choose to be the final one, is of their last visit from Montreal. She and Uncle Bill said they had something for me. They arrived carrying a small, wooden, Dominican chair, carved with a Taino-style face on the back. It looked just about large enough for a three-year old to sit in. Auntie Joanna smiled and asked if I recognized it. But when you’re three years old you tend to miss the important memories; too busy running around being young. I was told that when we still lived in the Dominican Republic one of my favourite places to visit was Uncle Bill’s and Auntie Joanna’s. That I would sit in that chair and tell stories the way she did. Now they were giving it to me to keep. “For the original storyteller,” she said.

It sits now in my writing room. My memories of it are hazy and vague at best; whenever I look at it I struggle to call it up from the past, but get only mist. To be honest it’s hard to think of as really my own. So I’ll just keep thinking of it as Auntie Joanna’s.

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