Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Speech to the North American Reggio Emelia Alliance

I had the honor of speaking to the North American Reggio Emelia Alliance about the importance of stories. Here is my speech -

I hold in my hand a tomato. Did you know that during the 19th century, the French called the tomato "the apple of love," the Germans called it "the apple of paradise," and the British thought it was poisonous because it is a part of the nightshade family? Ah, the poor Brits. Did you know that the tomatoes we buy at the grocery store and tomatoes we have in our salads at restaurants are still picked by hand?

Today, I would like this tomato to be our symbol of an art and a person. From now on, whenever you see a beautiful tomato with your eyes, whenever you taste its goodness on your tongue, I want you to think about the art of storytelling, for the time we in the South spent walking shoulder to shoulder down long rows of tomatoes, working side by side on farms and in fields, and sitting face to face on front porches after a hard days work of planting and picking and tending the earth, nurtured the art of storytelling...and I want you to think about my Grandpa, for he loved to grow tomatoes and he loved to tell stories.

Robert Elias Cunningham, my Grandpa, was a farmer and a storyteller. Born and raised on a dairy farm here in Greenville, he could milk a cow with frozen hands and fix a tractor with baling wire and Duck Tape as easily as he could sit under a giant oak tree in a creaking swing and weave a story out of words and life. When I moved back to Greenville in the summer of 2000 he planted 500 tomato plants in his garden. One of his friends gave him 250 more plants. "Pepa," I said, for that is what I called him, "Each plant is supposed to produce 40 pounds of tomatoes. That means we're going to have 30,000 pounds of tomatoes!" He answered, "Well, I'm glad I have you here to help me pick them." He planted seeds in his garden off of Hudson Road to grow fruits and vegetables. He planted stories in my heart to grow...well, to grow Trevor. That is what good stories do, right? They grow us...they help us see...they help us hear...they help us feel...they help us touch...they help us become more human.

If I close my eyes, I can see him kneeling in his garden, his skin the color of the newly plowed rows, his smell the smell of humble dirt, sweat dripping off his forehead and mixing with the soil to help those tomatoes grow.

His stories made me laugh.

"Have I told you the story about how Leo beat the finance company?" he asked. "No," I answered, "But I'd love to hear it."

"Well, Leo started with the heating and air conditioning company just after I was made a foreman.

On his first day on the job he said, 'Mr Cunningham, let me tell you how I beat the finance company.'

'I had old, raggedy furniture in my house - a wobbly table, a sunken mattress, a stained couch - so I went to the store and bought brand new furniture.'

'I brought that brand new furniture home and put it up in my attic.'

'I didn't make a single payment on it!'

'In three months, the finance company came to my house and repossessed my old, raggedy furniture.'

'When they left, I brought down the brand new furniture from the attic.'

'That's how I beat the finance company!'

"Can you guess what he did at the end of the day?" my Grandpa asked. "What?" I answered.

"He came up to me and asked, 'Mr. Cunningham, can you loan me some money from my salary until I get paid next week?'"

"And I said, 'Leo, I can't lend money to you. If you're smart enough to beat the finance company then I know you're smart enough to beat me!'"

His stories made me cry.

It was evening and the sun was sitting on the horizon, turning the sky a deep red like...well, like the color of one of the tomatoes on the vine.

"Have you ever cried?" I asked as we sat down beside each other in the swing under the oak tree.

He put his arm around me and held me close.

"When it was time for your Grandma to give birth to your Mom," he said, "She came down with a terrible sickness.

The doctor looked me in the eyes. 'Her fever is high, so very high. She and the baby could die,' he said. It sounded as if his mouth was full of cotton. I tried to look back into his eyes. They were weary and kind. But...I looked away. I stared at his black bag on the floor, opened with a part of his stethoscope hanging out, tilted toward his tattered journal on the floor beside it. I looked away because I was afraid.

I was afraid I was going to lose both of them.

I was afraid.

And I cried.

You know, if I would have lost them then I wouldn't have you."

A tear rolled down his cheek. Mine, too. These were tears of love, though, and not of fear. The one is the best kind of tears. The other, the worst.

His house had five rooms. He fought with the Marines at Iwo Jima in WWII. After the war he bought four army barracks and built the house around them on land his Father gave to him.

I remember the first night I spent by myself with them in that house. The guest bedroom was just down the hall from their bedroom. It had two single beds. One bed was beside a bookshelf that held a set of Time Life books titled "How To Fix Anything." He used them to help him fix...anything. The other bed was beside a window that looked out into a fig tree that stood quietly and helpfully next to the house.

I was eight years old. I shared a room at home with my younger brothers, so I was accustomed to having someone in the room with me, used to hearing and feeling a soft breath rise and fall beside me, comforted by the answer "Yes" when I woke in the night and asked, "Is anyone here?"

At my Grandparents house, I had the guest bedroom all to myself.

They were early birds, my Grandparents were. My Grandpa often joked and called my Grandma a night owl, which meant that she nodded on the couch until 9:30 p.m., the time she went to bed. He was asleep by 8 p.m.

My Grandpa kissed me on one cheek and went off to bed. An hour and a half later, and my Grandma kissed me on the other as she rose from the couch, took me by the hand, and led me to my room...MY room...not the OUR room of my room at my house but the MY room of theirs.

She tucked me in the bed by the window. "I love you," she whispered and was gone. I heard the floorboards creak softly as she walked lightly to her bed. I heard a grunt as my Grandpa moved over to give up her side of the bed. I heard their breathing, at first in counterpoint and then in harmony, as they drifted off to deep sleep.

My ears were sensitive to the sounds around me, listening for...whatever the ears listen for in darkness. I fell asleep to the sweet sound of my Grandparents' breathing.

I woke with a start.

"What was that," I asked out loud. No one answered. There was only silence.

I took a deep breath, rolled on my side, and peeked out the window. I saw a gentle sway in the fig tree and heard a gentle breeze through it's branches but nothing more.

I closed my eyes again.

"Boom," I heard in the distance, from the mountains that rise with grace around us.

I opened my eyes...again.

A faint flash of light lit up the room.

"One, two three..." I began counting until I got to the number twelve and "Boom," I heard again. (You know why I did this, don't you? So I could know the miles between the storm and me.)

"Maybe," I thought to myself, "Maybe the storm is moving away from us, over the hills, up the mountain, out of sight and sound.

Flash. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight..." Boom!

The gentle sway of the breeze turned into a mighty shake of the wind as the fig tree scraped and scratched the screen of the window beside me.

Flash. "One, two, three, four..." Boom!

I pulled the covers off of my body and dangled my leg off the side of the bed. I did not ask myself, "Should I go to my Grandparents' room?" I simply got up and headed down the hall toward them.

My little feet were at the threshold of their bedroom door when there was a flash that lit up the whole room and a boom that shook the whole house, all at the same time. The storm was directly over us!

The world record in the long jump at that time was a bit over 29 feet. On that night, at that moment, tiny Trevor Scott Barton soared over twice that mark and landed in his Grandpa and Grandma's bed!

My heart was beating as loudly as the mind was flashing as wildly as the the hands of my Grandparents closed around mine.

Never before or never since have I felt so sanctuary...even as the storm raged around us.

The rain beat so hard on their roof I could hear nothing but the RATTA TAT TAT of the drops against the tin.

Soon, though, as is the way of southern summer thunder storms, the rain slackened, the thunder eased, the lightning grew faint again until there was only a DRIP DRIP DRIP against the sill of the window.

"Were you scared?" asked my Grandpa with a kindness in his voice reserved for me, the boy who made him a Grandpa.


"It's okay. Here, let me tell you a story..."

This is what good stories do, right? They give us sanctuary...they grow us...they help us see...they help us hear...they help us feel...they help us touch...they help us become more human. They help us become.

Listen to the words of another great storyteller, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in his poem Ode To Tomatoes -

and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth,
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

So it is with stories. So it was with my Grandpa.

Go out and offer the world the gift of fiery color and cool completeness, the gift of story, the gift of yourselves.