Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them.
My father brought us used books from a place in Boston called Morgan Memorial. I remember the name well since it was the source of treasures, but I didn’t know what it was until I looked it up on the internet. It is a place where “unwanted household goods” were made serviceable by people with disabilities. One of these books was my favorite: The Listen to Me Stories by Alicia Aspinwall. Another of my favorites was Granny’s Wonderful Chair by Frances Browne. The inscription in that book is “Nuzzo to Mr. L.” I think Nuzzo was one of my father’s charges in the school where he taught woodworking to boys who had got in trouble with the law, truancy mostly but also petty thefts. I don’t know why Nuzzo gave my father a book.
Alicia is not as well-known as Frances, partly I think, because Granny’s Wonderful Chair contained "The Christmas Cuckoo", widely-anthologized in Christmas story books. Perhaps she was a better storyteller, but she also had a more dramatic biography. She was blind, the result of smallpox in her childhood, and came from a family of 12 in Ireland. I think Alicia was an American, but I can’t find anything more about her. She wrote a moralizing story about the use of the word “please” also anthologized.
Until I started writing this, I hadn’t fully realized that these two books were products of the nineteenth century. The Listen to Me Stories was first published in 1897, but my copy is a 1910 reprint. Granny’s Wonderful Chair was published in 1856.
Both of these books, I also just realized, were told by a recognizable storyteller. In Granny’s Wonderful Chair, the chair tells the stories. “Chair of my grandmother, tell me a story.” That the title of The Listen to Me Stories implied a storyteller, I understood and I even imagined the storyteller.
I thought I could finish this exploration without having to reread the stories, but I realize I can’t. What did I find in these stories that so affected me?