LAYTON -- Teresa Clark grew up a little embarrassed by her grandmother, who wore old-fashioned underwear, smelled strongly of Mentholatum, and promised her young granddaughter that she'd do her best not to die in Clark's bed.
"She was ancient," said Clark, now a white-haired woman herself. "She must have been 65."
Clark, an Idaho resident in Utah for Weber State University's Storytelling Festival, told her family stories to a rapt audience at Layton's Apple Village Assisted Living Center. This is the first year the festival has scheduled sessions at a senior center.
But back to Clark's story:
Much to Clark's mortification, her ointment-scented granny volunteered in her grade-school classroom, and one day, Clark's classmates asked if the older woman had known any wagon train pioneers.
"She told them her grandmother was a pioneer, and they were fascinated," Clark recalled. "She looked different to me after that, and I realized I had touched the hand of a woman who had touched the hand of a pioneer. There was a 150-year span in that touch. And I learned all about her grandmother through my grandmother."
Clark grew up to collect the stories of her family elders, and to fill them out with additional historical research.
"For me, this is a treasure chest," Clark said of the rest home audience, in a brief interview before her performance. "The stories that are here are a hair's breadth from being lost. I have yet to meet the person that doesn't have an extraordinary story in their life, and maybe more than one. There are no uninteresting people in the world."
Because Clark had learned to listen rather than discount the stories of her elders, she was able to give her grandmother's eulogy, "and when the coffin shut, we didn't lose 98 years of stories.
"The stories lived on with everyone in the room who heard them, or who heard them and shared them with their children."
Clark told another tale, set in a society that discarded its elders. One man sneaked his father home in the darkness, rather than abandon him in the woods, as law decreed. When drought hit the land and crops withered before producing seeds, starvation seemed unavoidable until the old man told his son to plow the roads before the spring rains, because the roads were littered over decades with seeds that fell from wagons. The kingdom was saved, and the wisdom of elders was once again revered.
Storytelling Festival regular Bill Hinkley, who has missed only one year of the festival and that because of heart surgery, told the crowd he left his own senior center to entertain at theirs. He told a folk tale, then followed up with a pantomime, narrated by the frantic, caged squawks of Clover, Apple Village's tiny green finch, who saw the silence as a prime opportunity to be heard.
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Clark finished her talk by urging everyone within earshot to share their priceless stories, and to learn the stories of others. Clarence D. Viator, 79, shared a memory of his grandfather, a Louisiana doctor who helped the less fortunate pursue medical training.
Clark offered tips for mining one's own memory, or to help refresh the memories of others.
"Take a field trip to an antique store," she suggested. "The objects you see may stir up memories. Team up with elementary school classes to trade memories. Children naturally ask the best questions. Listen to the music of your childhood. Think about the smells on special occasions when you were younger, like what Halloween or Thanksgiving smelled like.
"And don't sit back and be quiet. Share those memories. They are gold."
The three-day WSU Storytelling Festival, now in its 16th year, continues through Wednesday. All storytelling sessions are free. For a full schedule of events at multiple venues, visit www.weber.edu/storytelling.
"We drew 8,000 people last year," said Shanna Tobin, a member of the festival's steering committee. "It gets bigger every year."