Memory Sketch # 34
Thursday, February 14, 2002
© LEONARD B. KLEIN
The first storyteller in my life was my mother. True, it was not so much telling stories as reading them to me. I remember how expressively she read, and how nice it was listening to her. While I can remember the feeling of the experience, I can’t remember any of the stories at all. I can picture a book in her hand, open to where she was reading, but I can’t make out what book it was. I do recall that Mom used to say, “Once you can read, if you have a book you are never alone.” I had mixed feelings about what she said; after all a book is only a book and not a person. No book could ever replace my Mom. And yet, what she taught me came to be true since the book was an extension of Mom and when I was reading it I always felt close to her.
The second storyteller in my memory was Uncle Irving Luth, my mother’s brother. When he came over for a visit, he would tell us stories, not from a book but out of his own mind. They were exciting stories and we couldn’t bear to be taken away from them whenever that became necessary. It was from Uncle Irving that I learned to tell stories and to make them interesting so that I could hold an audience listening to them.
On Bristol Street my friends and I would sit on the steps leading down to the basement, and I would tell them stories. In a way it amazed me that I could do that and that they would want to listen to me, even plead with me to tell a story. Those adventure tales were stories I just made up as I told them, sometimes getting myself into a story situation that I didn’t know how to get out of – but I usually found a way.
After Bristol Street, I don’t remember telling stories until I began to write compositions for English classes in Junior High School and later on in High School. Then I used my skills to good effect, creating stories that were quite unique as far as the rest of the class went. The writing of them was difficult for me and they took a long time to develop in my mind, but when the story came it was usually interesting, not only to my teachers but also to me as I wrote it. The main drawback, since they were written and not told, was my spelling and grammar and that detracted very much from my papers. It was a source of continual frustration to me.
Somehow, when I first got to college I developed the notion that I could not write at all. It was a combination of the effects of atrocious spelling and equally good grammar. I hated essay exams, take-home papers and book reports.
The line of story telling continued with my little sister, Rochelle, and then later on when nieces and nephews became old enough to listen, I was able to story tell with them. Mostly I recall two main themes that I told in many variations: “The Jungle Books”, especially the stories about Mowgli and his adventures, and stories based on the novel “Dune.” There were others, which I just made up as I related them. In every instance, the telling of stories to little faces caught up in every phrase was, and still is, a wonderful experience.
In the Service, when I was sent to Laughlin AFB in Texas, I met a Californian by the name of Steinberg. He was a very compulsive guy, the kind who takes a mile to go from one lane to another when driving. His tires had 70,000 miles on them when I knew him. Steinberg was a radioman who worked in a group further down the flight line, and he’d been at the base for a year before I arrived there. He was a very friendly fellow and knew several local people in the town of Del Rio. What really caught my attention was that whatever Steinberg read, following its completion he would write a report on it. He had a whole pile of book reports that he had hand written in his very precise handwriting. He said it was part of his preparation for returning to college. He didn’t want to get rusty and did want to be ready for his last year to complete his BA. I couldn’t get over the fact that he was doing reports without having to do them as a requirement of anything. For a while, I considered trying to write similar reports myself, but I just couldn’t muster enough intention. However, taking a cue from him, I began to write in a journal my thoughts on anything I thought about including readings. This prompted me to read whatever I could on writing or how to become a writer. I was especially taken with the loose style recommended by D.H. Lawrence as a way of loosening up ones thinking on paper. Therefore, I wrote some stream of consciousness stuff that did help relax my style. But, during this time I did not write any stories or memories, just wrote about current thoughts and activities. Nevertheless, I did feel that I was getting myself ready to return to college just as Steinberg had done.
At the point that I re-entered College I had to be very careful about my written work. I managed a few good essays and some science papers in my Psychology courses that were acceptable writing, but I did not attempt anything more than what was required of me. My grammar and spelling deficits still condemned me to think of myself as a non-writer and so it remained until the advent of the computer and the wonderful spell-checking program. I read about computers and programs that checked spelling and grammar, and I hungered for one. I dreamt often of buying a Kaypro computer, which was one of those all-in-one-box, transportable units. Many writers, at that time, had expressed a preference for the Kaypro, but it was too expensive for me, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to have serious doubts about the seven-inch screen it had. Instead, I purchased the Commodore 128 with a thirteen-inch monitor, and with that purchase, the whole world changed, not all at once, but steadily everything changed for me. The computer and the software had to be learned, painstakingly learned, and then, new worlds opened up - and I began to tell stories again, stories written to commemorate anniversaries, birthdays, graduations and other calendar events. The most elaborate thing I wrote was a piece that related the experiences of the cousins club, written after visiting Atlanta, in 1999. It was entitled, The Markings, and my cousins club memories were combined with one of the earliest poems in English literature, Beowulf. This eventually led to my writing a series of Memory Sketches, putting into words the events of my life as I remembered them.
In 2001, I started a small novel based on the Beowulf story, but uniquely presented from the view point of Grendel (drawn as the monster in Beowulf). I combined my story of Grendel’s descendents with my own life experiences in the guise of a main character, Ben Human.
Now when I write, I tend to read over every draft many times, each time editing the copy as I go over it. The newly edited copy is reprinted and the reading process begins again. Very often, while I am reading a draft and as it begins to shape up, I have the strong feeling that I would like to have my mother read it, and I miss not being able to do that.
When I was thirteen, towards the end of my preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, the Rabbi wrote a speech for me to read at the ceremony. I thought it was formulaic, distant, and boring, and Mom agreed. She tore it up and wrote her own speech for me. I was amazed at how good it was, emotionally strong and relevant. Somehow, I had always believed that my Mom could write well, but there was the proof. When I recited the speech, it was as if I was in a trance. It seemed to just roll out of me; all I had to do was move my mouth and the sounds just came out. Even so, I could still appreciate, as I delivered it, how effective it was and how intently I was being listened to.