Once upon a time...
I don't remember anymore if they are Hopi or Navajo or both. Those round clay women with the children gathered around them, called Storytellers. I have long been drawn to them. I have been both of them, the child listening intently to the story which always, regardless of the subject, took on a sense of mystery just in the telling. Hearing the older wise one, where the beginning was strong, the middle was the place where I was lost completely in the tale, and the end always came too soon.
With age I became the teller, trying to desperately to weave the words into a solid fabric of fantasy and fact. I did this as a babysitter when I was in my teens, as a young mother in my twenties, as a reporter in my thirties and forties, and as a grandmother in my fifties. And yet during all these decades I remain very much, maybe even more, grateful to find a story well told.
It is one of the aspects of NPR I have long admired, the feature called StoryCorps, where everyday folks find themselves telling a snippet of their lives, usually in harmony with another family member or friend. Those clever newscasters have tossed their nets out to gather and then shape it to fit, into just a very few minutes on the radio. I travel to other parts of the country and other decades past and live, ever so briefly, through the eyes of another.
Recently a business trip took me the Denver where I had not visited in more than a decade. The once grand Brown Palace seemed dwarfed by all the tall buildings surrounding it. The downtown where we stayed was vibrant and edgy and far more urban than I remembered. On the last day, I just wanted to make one pilgrimage to a place I remembered with such fondness I was surprised at the ache.
We drove, I confess around the Cherry Creek area for more than hour, trying to find the former department store turned bookstore -- Tattered Cover. My companion was patient and used her phone to try and find the location but it kept coming up with address (es!) that were miles away. We finally drove to one, a former department store, but it felt slightly off. When I asked the sales person if there was a fourth floor with a small cafe and wine bar, a wistful smile crossed his face.
"THAT Tattered Cover has been gone for years now." He said it with all the respect you would give a lost love who had tragically passed too young. "There are three stores now, all in older buildings, in various parts of town." My companion, at least, had momentary confirmation, that though I may be crazy about many things, the location of once and former grand dame of fiercely independent bookstores, had been in the Cherry Creek area.
I sighed at the memory and the loss. The original store had been introduced to me by a man I was wildly (and as it turned out ) blindly in love with, for more than a decade. He brought me there as a kind of manifestation that he "understood" me. And though we were on a tight clock, for reasons I can't remember now, he offered me two uninterrupted hours, by myself, to explore there. Floor after floor was filled with books of all sizes on every topic imaginable. There were nooks and crannies and overstuffed chairs and places to become quickly lost. Which I did. The hours passed like a too short chapter. I purchased a few books and notecards and a beautiful pen and we raced to the airport to return to Park City.
More than a decade later I returned to Denver to spend 10 days there as a day patient at the National Jewish Medical Center which was rated number for respiratory diseases. If my testing finished early, I would drive around the corners, until I found my way to the Tattered Cover. I would write on the fourth floor in my journal, I would read from yet another new book, and I would pray in that wordless way the doctors would discover why I couldn't breathe, like other people.
They never did. And yet somehow I got well. I always gave part of the credit to those afternoons at the Tattered Cover, escaping with words.
This time, I was also on a clock, out of respect to my co-worker. I gave myself an hour, time enough to gather two armfuls of books and note cards. I had the wisdom to have them shipped to me. I picked them up recently at the post office and saw one of my favorite booksellers from Dolly's Bookstore, on the sidewalk. "I have to confess "I said quickly, "I've been to Tattered Cover in Denver recently. I wasn't disloyal, "I said too fast, and before I could say more, Liza smiled wisely said," Ah you've been on a pilgrimage."
It was such a relief to be so easily understood.
I leave today on my uncountable numbered trip in the past four years, to California to visit my mother in her home for "memory care." Her memory checked out years ago but she is still in residence there, now in hospice care. Her birthday is this week, 89. And someday, maybe, I will find a way to tell some of her stories in a meaningful way. But for this trip I will take with me the book Sue at Dolly's held aside for me yesterday...J.K. Rowling's new work, "The Casual Vacancy." It will serve as a comfort on the plane, in the waiting rooms before the sessions with the doctors, in my hotel room. In the front flap of the book it says, in red bold letters ..."A big novel about a small town...It is the work of a storyteller like no other." I plan to visit that town, get lost there actually, this very Sunday out of The Park...
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.