Storyteller Jay O'Callahan - Home Page

By Jay O'Callahan
printed in Storytelling World, Winter/Spring, 1997


In 1978 my wife and children and I rented a house in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. We stopped by a farmhouse to get the key, and it was there I met Charlie Robinson and Maggie Thomas. Charlie Robinson was 89 and sitting in a rocking chair very close to his stove. Maggie Thomas, almost 70, was sitting on a couch to our right. Charlie was a short man with white hair, an open shirt, and a warm voice. Maggie and Charlie both asked us to stop in whenever we wanted.


I began stopping in almost every day. I told Charlie and Maggie I was a storyteller and hoped maybe I could make up a story about them.


I assumed the story would be about Charlie Robinson since this was his farmhouse and it had been built by his grandfather, a shipbuilder who had sailed from Scotland. Charlie had always lived in this house, and when he had married his wife, Margaret, they continued to live here. Charlie had considered it one of the gifts of his life that he was able to tend to both of his parents in their final illnesses.


Maggie Thomas had come when she was 19, thinking she would be here just a short time to help out while Charlie's wife, Margaret, was sick. Margaret's sickness was long lasting and Maggie spent her life here.


Maggie had lost sight in her first eye when she was 14, and her second eye when she was 62. In addition, Maggie had had several back operations and walked stiffly and with difficulty.


So here was a team - two older people, Maggie blind and Charlie near the end. Maggie's mind was very precise. She was the local historian. She remembered everybody's birthday. She remembered the different storms and cold snaps and early springs.


So there was lots of information, but what would the story be? I was sure it would be about Charlie. His Scottish heritage interested me, and so did his early farming days.


Charlie told me that just outside the farmhouse the grass used to be wheat fields. He told me of cutting the wheat when he was a little boy, and working with all of his strength, trying to keep up with his father. He worked so hard that at the end of the day, Charlie, just 9, was so tired he couldn't open his hands to let go of the scythe.


As the days passed and we became closer, I began to think more about blindness. Both Maggie and Charlie would speak of World War II. Charlie said they would sit and listen to Winston Churchill's speeches on the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Charlie would say, "Well Churchill was wonderful. Sometimes I think he was a little too wonderful. But Churchill, he'd calm us down and give us something to hope for."


I could almost feel the drama of Winston Churchill's words being uttered from London and coming into this farmhouse where Charlie and Maggie sat. I could feel the simple thunder of Churchill's words. I began to think of the blindness of war. Millions of people were dying in Europe. It seemed that the war was blind, and that Maggie Thomas was one of those who saw clearly. Maggie was blind the way her mother and her mother before her were blind. But she was morally clear-sighted. Maggie was courageous, funny and kind. Deep down I was stirred by this question of blindness. I could see in the back of my mind all of Europe on fire.


Perhaps that's why I asked Maggie one day about her work when she was a youngster. Maggie began to talk about working in the herring shed when she was 14 years old. She told me about stringing 18 herring on a rod and putting the rod onto the drying rack. She talked of the dirt floor and the little fire that didn't warm them because the door was open so the drying racks could be taken out. The cold seeped into her to the point that Maggie would never eat herring again because it brought back the memory of coldness.


One day in Charlie's kitchen I met a woman whose husband had been rector in Pugwash when he was 26. One of his jobs was to deliver the death telegrams. It got so no one wanted to see the rector coming up the path for anything.


In addition to that, I was learning a lot about Pugwash. Every day we would pass Stone House Murdoch's house. Stone House had two brothers, Corner Murdoch and Glass Eye Murdoch. The names fascinated me. Corner Murdoch had a hole in his fence. His cows would go through the hole and gather at the corner of the roads.


One day Linda, the children, and I headed into Pugwash to shop, and a rhythm just appeared in my mind. It was a rhythm that could be sung in the herring shed, and suddenly I realized all of the events that were moving to me could be strung together with this rhythm. I could bring Churchill's radio addresses in and the death telegram, the pain of the war, and the difficulties of rationing. I could tell the story from Maggie's point of view. She'd tell of the cold of the herring shed, the hurt of war, and the warmth of the community.


It could all be done with a rhythm. What my imagination had done was to present me with a way to weave everything together.


I had to immerse myself in Maggie and Charlie's lives. I was drawn to both Maggie and Charlie and to everything they said. I began to muse about their lives, and certain things like blindness drew me deeply. So in a way, I got in there and kneaded up the dough, but the heat to turn it into bread was simply a gift of imagination. I was willing to work hard, but the structure that would pull a story together simply appeared.


This process is repeated in any story that works. I try to gather the facts and immerse myself in the characters. But then something magical must happen. Some rhythm must appear, or image, or deep feeling; or the structure itself must be discovered. So creativity seems to be a combination of hard work and an openness to grace.


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