This post is part 2 of a larger series. Certain parts of it won’t make a whole lot of sense unless you have read part 1, which can be found here…
When I was a kid, there was a Samoan princess who lived in the stars. I don’t remember her name, or any of the stories, just that basic setting. What I do remember is the feel of soft, Costco brand sweatpants covering the lap I was sitting on and the sound of lounge chairs being moved over a rough brick patio. I remember a warm summer breeze wafting the scent of gently smoking cigarette butts through the air, and the sight of stars sparking against the night sky as the stories strolled among them. And I remember the joy of letting those surroundings soak in while my mind traveled with a princess among islands made of starlight.
The stories were told to me by Penny, a friend of my parents. In fact, she was the one who introduced them. I still don’t know if the stories were ones from her childhood or if they were figments of her imagination that she occasionally allowed to go wild. Either way, her stories of the island princess in the stars were my introduction to the act of storytelling.
We went over to Penny’s house a lot when I was growing up. She lived in the neighborhood between Idelwild and Chrissy Caughlin Park. She and her husband would host poker nights all the time. I would go with my parents, sometimes I would play poker with the adults, other times I would watch The Lion King in the other room while they played cards; it was then that I learned how to operate a tv and vcr.
Penny would make runny baked bbq beans, and serve some store-bought potato salad along with some French bread. Her husband would make steaks on the grill out back. If you asked for your steak to be rare, he would basically pick up a raw steak in some tongs on the right side of the grill, flip it over as he passed the steak over the heat and plop it down on a plate on the left side of the grill. If you asked for your steak well done, you got the exact same treatment. Every steak was rare and bloody, and the juices mixed with the runny beans to make a soup to be soaked up with the bread. I hated the food when I was a kid; now it’s one of my favorite meals.
Penny loved cats, especially Siamese cats. She had a few different ones through all the years, though the two that stuck in my mind the most were Tinker and Stinker. Tinker was small, devious, and playful while Stinker was larger, fat, and not overly bright, with eyes that went in every direction except straight ahead.
Cats were a constant part of Penny’s life… so were Costco brand sweatpants and shirts. She wore those sweats as often as she could get away with it. And when you have as little concern for other people’s opinions as Penny did, you can ALWAYS get away with wearing sweats. She would wear some of them frequently enough, especially around the house, that eventually the thread in them would wear down. I’m pretty sure there were a few times where the ratio of thread to cat hair had shifted in favor of the felines.
She would chain smoke while she obsessively gambled. She loved food that most other people would avoid (Eggroll King and Gold N’Silver) and she didn’t exercise. She wasn’t the healthiest person around, there’s no denying that. But her mind shined bright and her wit was the sharpest of anyone I’ve ever known. She was never at a loss for words, jokes and comebacks were ready on a moment’s notice.
Penny had a sense of self that was indomitable. She knew exactly who she was and never seemed to doubt it for a second. Others opinions held no sway with her unless they were the opinions of her friends, to whom she was unfailingly loyal.
She was an avid reader, infatuated with a good mystery. She would read book after book after book, always trying to stay one step ahead of the characters and the writer. Likewise she would sit down with brain-teasers or puzzles, working on them for hours at a time. She would burn through games such as Myst and Riven in a fraction of the time it would take an average person.
I tell you all of this about Penny so that you can form a picture in your mind of the stories that she used to tell me of the Samoan princess that lived among the stars.
A picture in my mind is all that remains for me as far as the stories are concerned…
A picture of lounge chairs on a rough brick patio covered in birdseed, below an ocean filled with islands of starlight far too numerous to count.
A picture of people sitting around me with their heads tilted back and their eyes fixed on the night sky as a hand reaches out in front of me, pointing from start to star and weaving a tale more full and rich than any tapestry.
A picture of a mind shining brighter than the stars around it, its light shining out through the cracks of an ordinary life.
That’s the picture that was given to me as an introduction to the world of stories and storytelling. It’s the picture that taught me that no matter what may be happening in my day to day life, my imagination is capable of anything.
Penny passed away a few years ago from cancer. She hadn’t told me a story about the princess in the stars for nearly two decades. Though the details of the stories have faded, the picture she left me with hasn’t. The lessons derived from that picture haven’t faded either.
Now the picture of the porch and the starlight islands is a bit ephemeral and far too complicated to include in my Life Is Cinema tattoo. However, these stories, the storyteller, and their impact on my perception of life, and the stories that it’s made up of need to be included somehow. So I figure, I’ll keep it simple and fill the first frame of the film with a penny, a little play on words for the woman that taught me never to let my imagination whither; the woman that showed me what storytelling can do for the soul.