Let Me Tell You A "Story"

When I moved to my new home last year, I told my young realtor, Jacob, that I no longer wanted to be responsible for a lawn, since LeRoy had been our landscape architect and groundskeeper extraordinaire. I said that I’d prefer a townhouse or condo. Using tact that belied his mere twenty-six years, Jacob suggested we look at condos first since “as opposed to townhouses, they’re just one story, Dr. Engel.” He hastily added that he could tell that stairs would be absolutely no problem for me at all — but still…This was his tactful way of guiding me to the wise decision of having all my living quarters on the same level.

In Medieval Europe, artists also took advantage of single-story public buildings. They utilized a tier of ground-level windows on the outside of the structure (sometimes but not always a church) to illustrate tales, usually of a mythic, historical, or religious subject, using beautifully stained glass. The scenes appeared in consecutive order around the edifice.

The reason there were so many tales displayed this way was directly related to the woeful public literacy rate of about 14% until the 1600’s. These pictures were a way to encourage those who could not read to participate in the universal pleasure of following an exciting tale. Who doesn’t want to know the answer to that most addictive of questions: “And then what happened next?” Believe me, Netflix did not invent the concept of a binge-worthy series. With this medieval method of presentation, you simply followed the entertaining account around the building: no annual subscription fee required.

Originally, these particular tales were called “storeys,” named for the (in this case, ground) level of the building on which they were displayed. Today, of course, they are “stories.” We in America now also spell a building’s floor or level as “story,” but the British still retain the original spelling of “storey” to differentiate it from its homonym “story” with its very different meaning.

The reason for our devotion to stories today is that they often mimic life, but with the added magic ingredient of turning it into art, so the writer can make his characters’ lives resonate with a symmetry and purpose and even symbolism that our actual lives can only dimly resemble. And you might think the structure of a story also imitates our lives, since both have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Well, yes and no.

Obviously, our lives have a beginning and, quite poignantly, an end. It is the middle that is the interesting part when compared to stories. Any fiction author can determine exactly how long his or her characters will live, and therefore know when they have reached their exact halfway point. But since we are almost always spared knowing our death date, we can never determine the exact midpoint in our own life’s journey. No wonder that we think of “middle-age” as any age from forty to sixty five.

I remember on my fiftieth birthday, my Aunt Mollie, the single most vibrant and optimistic person I’ve ever known, gave me a “Happy 100th!” birthday card and simply wrote on it, “And today, Elliot, you are but halfway there.”

I have tried to mimic her buoyant, cheery nature in my own personality. Was she ever a glass-half-full kind of person! She often took me downtown when I was a child so we could eat at the tearoom of our largest department store, where there was a big treasure chest from which kids could select one wrapped present following lunch. The restaurant was on the top floor— the fifth story or storey. How I loved taking the escalator up five flights to get there (elevators didn’t agree with my young stomach). But one time the “UP” escalator wasn’t running.

“Oh, no, Aunt Mollie!” I groaned. “It’s broken!”

“No, honey,” she said. “Escalators are never out of order, because even when they are stopped, they make a mighty fine staircase!” And with her leading the way, we climbed every step, holding on to the “mighty fine” handrails on both sides.

I have always wanted to write a story about my jaunty five-story climb. And now I am thinking about writing a second one on the same topic so that I, like the burglar who specializes in breaking into a house through a second-floor bedroom window, can be dubbed “a second-story man.”


Elliot writes:

We had two winners of our little contest from the last essay. LaVon Miller of Lansing, Michigan, won Oldest Reader with her October 1, 1929 birthdate — LaVon is ninety-four years and six months.

And  Shirley Butcher of Janesville, Wisconsin, won our title of Oldest Listener. Her wonderful daughter, CJ, faithfully reads my essays to her. With her birthdate of July 13, 1928, Shirley will be ninety-six in just three months. Wow!

I want to thank all of you who sent me birthday wishes. I would love to hear from you next when a particular essay moves you to add your own experiences to mine. You can be sure I’ll happily answer you.

Email Elliot at huffam@me.com or click here

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