It was National Cheesecake Day, but that wasn't why I purchased a slice of strawberry cheesecake at Incredibly Delicious. Originally I just thought it was the simple power of suggestion, since the person ahead of me ordered a slice, and the pale pink of the cheesecake, under a white, frothy, layer did look appealing. Of course, all desserts at Incredibly Delicious are a excellent bet at being very good. So I bought a slice to go with my lunch.
And I will admit that somewhere in the back of my mind I did think this a touch odd. While I have nothing against cheesecake it has never been my first choice for dessert. Normally, if I get dessert it will be a fresh fruit tart, or a chocolate, and cherry, cookie. Yet, even as I ate a tasty lunch that slice of strawberry cheese cake beckoned.
The first bite (and all later ones) were perfection - chilled strawberry melting quickly on the tongue, with the graham cracker crust the finale of the taste, and as I ate I remembered a Sara Lee chilled pie that my family loved. I think it was for one year, or more, that my mother made sure to buy a couple - one for that week, and one to keep frozen. While I will grant it was made with lesser ingredients than Incredibly Delicious's cake, my family and I didn't care at that time. For one - the bistro hadn't yet been dreamed of. All we knew was that the chilled strawberry cheesecake melted swiftly on the tongue, and the graham cracker crust was the perfect finale. As to why we stopped buying them, I don't remember, though maybe Sara Lee stopped making the cake, or we found a new favorite.
None of which matters.
It is the ghost of that flavor that does, particularly for a storyteller (be they performer or writer).
Amongst those who study story it has been known for a long time that when you tell a story, and invoke the senses, that the story you know, born of your memories, is a different story than what your audience hears as your words awaken personal memories.
However, I have never had such a simple, but powerful, experience that so proved the point with me.
What process brought me to eat that slice of strawberry cheesecake?
I would have to say that it was first having my attention called to the presence of strawberry cheesecake, and when I was mindful of it, then the pale pink of the filling lightly stirred the ghost of a memory. Yet not so much that I was aware how it was impacting my decision.
And the fact that the slice of cake kept calling my attention back during lunch hadn't yet awakened the full memory. Finally the texture and taste revealed the memory that was stirring - a memory of a simple, family, thing, so long forgotten, but suddenly, achingly, important.
What does this say for the memories invoked by storytelling? Do they stir in our audiences' minds, teasing, but not yet fully realized until a later trigger finishes the awakening? Or do they simply haunt the edges of memory?
A few weeks back I had the pleasure to perform at the Sangamon County Historical Society's "Spooky Sangamon." The other two presenters were: Ms. Tara McAndrew McClellan, and Mr Garrett Moffett. Ms. McClellann did a presentation about how Springfield, Il residents reacted to the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. And Mr. Garrett Moffett spoke on the possible hauntings of the Lincolns’ Home, and on Lincoln's psychic experiences.
My own presentation was of two traditional ghost stories. As I explained to the attendees, finding folkloric ghost stories in Sangamon County - or even in Central Illinois - were as hard to find as the ghosts themselves. So the criteria for my choices were stories that could be found up to the eastern border of Illinois, and on the western border. One of the stories concerned a murdered peddler (I suspect there are more peddlers' ghosts than there were murdered peddlers). And the other had to do with a ghost who had died with things undone. Both of these types of tales are fairly classic folkloric ghost stories.
One of the things that I have noticed in some modern collections of hauntings is that there is a certain disdain of folkloric ghost stories. In some books there is a sense that they aren't "valid," since the reason behind the stories has been lost in time. And they don't register on electronic equipment.
I liked a comment I read in one book. A book that took a more balanced view. I can't remember the book's title, but the gist of the quote was that, “folkloric ghost stories are cultural artifacts, which reflect the mores and fears of a particular time.”
The two stories I told that evening fit that criteria.
Ghosts of murdered peddlers are represented in stories in just about every state, and some states have more than one. Historical peddlers and traveling salesmen had to be wary. They were often out of touch with family for long periods of time, and they often carried large sums of money, or goods.
Ghosts with unresolved issues are also incredibly common. Murder victims whose bodies were hidden often returned as ghosts. And if money was not revealed before death this offered another cause. Of course, hidden treasures are still a popular fantasy.
Now how can such common ghost stories be "valid?" It does come back to reflecting the concerns of a culture.
I recently read a history book, entitled, The Bewitching of America, by Dr. Owen Davies, which is about American witch belief after the Salem witch trials.
What was fascinating is that he was able to find, often via newspapers, an incredible number of actual witch accusations throughout the U. S.; many occurring in the 20th century. This belief was paralleled in the continued spread of folkloric witch belief, which continued to be renewed with new immigrant populations. Dr. Davies does an excellent overview of the history of the various incarnations of witchcraft in America, and ends with how the view of witches has changed.
Ghosts and witches beliefs have always been lumped together when it comes to the devoted rationalist, and in the 19th century most wanted to claim that such superstitions were on the wan. I suspect this is why there is little documented in the Midwest – because of a belief that if these “superstitions” were ignored they would wither away. However, Dr. Davies, proved, at least for witches, that neither belief, nor the folklore, had really gone away.
So I would argue, when it comes to ghosts, that a tale isn’t “just folklore” to be proved, or disproved, by modern ghost hunting. For me the tale itself is a valid cultural artifact, and should also be preserved.
On this All Hallow's Eve I will begin with the most important, though not the most scarey. Last night I attended a fund raiser at the Inn at 835 for the Historic Preservation Fund. It was exciting to hear that plans are in the works for a very well-designed Historic Trails through Springfield, Illinois. It will help to offer a connectedness for visitors between our many beautiful historical sites.
Of course, the Inn at 835 is a marvel of restoration, and it was a pleasure to visit it for the Gala (http://www.innat835.com/). Plus the food is very good too.
Now for more spooky updates.......
The Halloween season would not be complete without offering a pre-show scare at Clayville's Haunted House (http://www.clayville.org). Fortunately the night was clear, and cold, and the attendance was good for the night that I was there.
I even started off by scaring some of the visitors by just getting into costume!
One young lady let out a shriek when she saw something black moving in the shadows. I didn't spoil the moment by telling her it was just me pulling on a warm, black, robe. And, at least, that was not my only shivery offering - the stories gave a few more.
I also had great fun by telling ghost stories at Montvale Estates last Friday. The seniors were really into the spirit of the holiday.
I finished out the Halloween stories at the Dana Thomas House (http://www.dana-thomas.org/). They were again offering their Halloween event, which included docents telling of actual ghostly occurrences, and with me telling more traditional tales.
It was a great evening, and one of the most lovely venues I have been in, since I was situated in the gallery. The audiences were steady and engaged. While I was delighted to have so many interested in my stories I was even more happy to see so many visiting such a intriguing house.
I guess the spirits were content with my stories as I had no unusual visitations, but I know that the docents have had plenty of stories to share with the visitors. Someday I hope I can hear some of those stories too!
And since it is All Hallow's Eve and the discussion has been of ghost stories it doesn't seem fair not to offer one here......
Two men were on a commuter train, with one gentleman reading, and the other looking out the window.
Finally the reader gave a snort of disgust, and said, "I can't believe anyone would believe in such drivel about ghosts!"
His seat partner said, "I take you don't believe in ghosts?"
"No, of course not," answered the reader.
"Too bad," said his companion, who promptly vanished.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.