Autumn, Childhood, and the Art of Storytelling

At the mere mention of the autumn season, a plethora of images, memories, and sensations are invoked. These images of the season connect me with nostalgia and warmth as I imagine my Ohio childhood with memories of running around my molting backyard, feeling the crisp, sharp air fill my lungs while the rattling whirl of dried leaves plays in the background. I remember embarking on trick-or-treating adventures with the neighbor boy as we found ourselves lost in the depths of the frightening yard decorations in our allotment. Of course, there were less frightening memories too, like decorating pumpkins with my family while watching Hocus Pocus or Halloweentown. The nostalgia of this special season lives in the memories of my childhood.  As I grew older, my love for autumn lingered as I beheld autumn’s beauty in the bushels of orange, red, and yellow-crowned treetops adorning the morning skyline of my high school commute. Or in the memories of my best friend Jordan and I scurrying along the dark collegiate streets of Kent, Ohio with chills up our spines from the testimonies of a historic ghost tour. 

The nostalgia of this special season lives in the memories of my childhood.

While all these moments represent what autumn means in my living memory, the true heart of my adoration for the season lies in the richness of its storytelling. Seasons are not just shaped by the imagery of its nature, but also by its lore associated with its origin or general merriment. For example, Christmas, theologically, begins with the Nativity of Christ’s birth and is also associated with the story of St. Nicholas.  On the other hand, the Christmas canon also includes fictional stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Likewise, Easter identifies with both the secular tale of “Peter Cotton Tail” and the Christian story of Christ’s Passion. Thanksgiving has its own mythology in the idealistic story of the Pilgrims. But as for Halloween, storytelling plays a slightly different role in its festivities. Rather than center itself on one or two central origin tales, Halloween participates in the activity of storytelling itself as celebrants gather to swap frightening tales by candlelight. Like other holidays, Halloween champions certain primary stories like Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” But Halloween includes more than stories from famous authors — it involves urban legends passed around through schoolyard oral traditions, like instances of ladies in white or local cry-baby bridges. For Halloween, no singular story stands out as a clear origin; rather, the nature of the holiday is simply the art of storytelling itself.

While all these moments represent what autumn means in my living memory, the true heart of my adoration for the season lies in the richness of its storytelling.

Out of all the images I sifted through earlier, it’s this emphasis on storytelling that drums up so much fondness for autumn particularly in the Halloween season. Unlike other holidays, Halloween invites everyone— from the giants of American literary canon to middle schoolers on a playground— to exchange tales. There’s nothing quite as lovely as finding yourself huddled with friends or family, presenting your own tales and  listening to the tales of others. 

But the role storytelling plays in my daily life moves beyond just a season of nostalgia, where I can see its seeds planted in the roots of my own upbringing. As the youngest of five by eleven years, I was often glued to my mom’s side as she ran errands, picked up siblings, or met with friends. Throughout that entire portion of my early childhood, I was always listening to her talk about family history, stories of her friends, and her strongly delivered opinions about the events of the day. Some of my most vivid memories involve my mother tucking me into a restaurant booth, while she and one of her  friends would hash out the goings-on of their lives together. While many would call this gossip, my young mind simply enjoyed the entertainment that came with their interpersonal rhetoric and the dramatic twists and turns of failed compliance to suburban etiquette. As they delivered these anecdotes and sagas, I listened attentively as their narratives unfurled. Analyzing stay-at-home mom gossip reveals quite a bit of unexpected insight.  

For example, a certain mother making an aggressive showing at a PTA meeting reveals, by the simple application of Hemingway’s iceberg method, that this suburban tale is more than an instance of social infringement. It is not that this mother is merely making a grab for PTA power, but more so  that she struggles with the fear of inferiority. Jesting aside, considering stories like this showcases how storytelling  lends itself to  a deep examination of human nature. This truth makes it a powerful tool in connecting with others.

As I grew older, I continued searching for more stories. The start of high school was a pinnacle moment in my mission, bringing  a batch of new faces, each carrying her own story. In those four years at my small Catholic all-girls high school I learned to love my peers not just for their qualities as steadfast friends, but also for what they had to share in their stories. 

Jordan and I met at summer gym just before the start of our freshman year. While we were the same friend group, we were not close until school began, quickly learning that out of our twenty-two-person class, we were the only two freshmen women in French. Gradually, Jordan and I bonded over our shared class. Eventually, these interactions evolved outside the classroom to little locker chats that, in turn, led to hour-long conversations as we meandered through after-school halls. Throughout the development of our friendship, we began to share more about ourselves and our backgrounds, shedding more and more light that would eventually unveil a more vulnerable picture of ourselves. This may seem like a typical way to become friends, but storytelling involves more than just becoming comfortable with someone. It involves looking at one’s whole being through the lens of their roots—through the best of times and the worst of times and following that trail all the way to the present chapter. When you know someone’s story, you connect with them on the basis of their humanity rather than just shared interests. 

When you know someone’s story, you connect with them on the basis of their humanity.

Certainly, Jordan has a very different worldview than many Hillsdale students. To start with, she is not very religious in a Christian sense and much prefers astrology. She couldn’t tell you much about the ancient Roman polis, but she could tell you about her deep passion for peace and conflict studies. While Jordan and I differ in many of our focuses in life and, to a certain extent, hold fundamentally different worldviews, she remains one of my best friends to this date. Why? Because we have become kindred spirits through the intimate, intricate, patient, and loving practice of storytelling. Together, we’ve shared a lifetime’s worth of observations, reflections, and revelations about our stories in a way that’s granted the other more access to a fuller picture. 

Above all, storytelling is an activity that requires genuine care to know, and it’s not something many understand. When you tell stories, just for the sake of understanding the other person, without judging them, you invite a unity of friendship with them that rarely occurs elsewhere . 

As I embark upon my senior year, I count myself lucky to have such a deep friendship with Jordan. We’re still telling stories and growing together as women, which has taken the form of eating pad thai in parking lots at sunset in our young adult lives. Even more so, telling stories with Jordan prepared me to learn about  many other people at college. I’m able to see the friendships that were once mere hopes last until the end of my time here. By sharing our stories, we bound our friendships in our common humanity. 

If there’s anything I’d wish to tell a freshman as he or she moves through this year, it’s to not forget about storytelling. While not everyone you share your story with will become your best friend, it will still bind you to that moment where you were able to recognize an  individual as a person, just like you, learning to survive, to become the best version of themselves, and all the while continuing their own story. Consider the people around you, in your dorm, in class, in your congregation, or those just passing by in the Union. Everyone has a story to tell if you give them the chance. 

Mercedes Bryan is a senior studying English and economics.

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