There are few things as central to childhood as that question asked between the night’s last glass of milk and tranquil dreams: “Will you read me a story?”
But why do we crave the story?
In October, I took the IMI team to see John Lithgow perform his one-man show “Stories by Heart.” With little for a set but an old chair and a lamp, Lithgow held us captive for hours, telling two stories: P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” and Ring Lardner’s “The Haircut.”
His show was borne out of performances he gave years ago under sadder circumstances. His dad, Arthur, had fallen gravely ill and John was the only of his siblings who could return home to provide assistance. Weeks went by and Arthur seemed on a clear path of decline. John was distraught, seemingly powerless to intervene. And then he got the idea to fish a favorite family book out of the attic: Tellers of Tales, published in 1939. These 100 stories, collected and introduced by Somerset Maugham, were the stories John’s father read to his children when they were young.
And so, Lithgow reports in his performance, “I began to read to my father and as I started on the Uncle Fred story, my father began to laugh.” And this he credits with the moment his father began to regain some health and vitality. Storytelling moves us. From the oral traditions of ancient peoples to contemporary actors like John Lithgow, we know that stories have the power to teach, to empower, inspire, and heal. Parents tell “stories by heart” when they have shared Goodnight Moon for the 300th time. A member of my own team recalls his father reciting the full Lord of the Rings tale on family hikes, an indelible memory and a challenge to pass on to one’s own children!
When I ask family members to describe their family mission, they are sometimes stunned that I’d ask and many have trouble articulating a response. But when I ask for the stories of their childhood—not just Grimm’s but the stories of their own family (grandmother’s pie, Aunt Ann painting the barn door blue, etc.)—every family and every family member opens up.
Returning from the Lithgow performance, the IMI team members recalled their own favorite stories: Robert Munsch books, the Golden Books, the Boxcar Children, The Swiss Family Robinson. What came back to me were poems and stories read to me by my mother. Stories often stick with us because there is something deep and important the story or the storyteller wants to share. In my case, the common thread in so many of the stories chosen by my mother was a young heroine struggling to do good and be good. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the diary of Anne Frank were gifts from my mother that had an impact on my impressionable young mind. And it is only now that I understand what she was helping me become, letting me know what she valued. She was sharing our mission. John Lithgow’s father performed and shared stories with his son with themes that now seem central to John’s career: mischief and pathos, urgency, and manic energy. For John, his dad’s storytelling, a particularly a dark and humorous brand of storytelling, is part of his father’s legacy. Now storytelling is his mission.
Not every story need carry the weight of a John Lithgow performance. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish can have all the power of “Uncle Fred Flits By” when read to a 4-year-old! As you gather in the weeks ahead, around fireplaces and dining room tables, airport lounges and scrunched in backseats, remember the stories of your childhood, stories that say something about who you are, and tell them again.
A version of this article appeared in the November/December edition of our client publication.