Sunday, November 11, 2012


Cunningham was born on a sleepy day about a month before our Tommy slipped into the world. Pippi and I spent most of our time in our quilted nest, contractions being my constant companion, forcing me to slow down. We read great stacks of books. Watched too many movies. Spent our days in a complacent fog. But then, Cunningham, our dear little bantam, split the quiet afternoon in two. Before, there was that awful silence. Like a blanket pulled down over the head, a dullness brought on by too much sleep, too little movement. But for the next month, when the rooster's crow ushered in the twelve o'clock hour, the very atmosphere seemed to crackle with expectancy.

Small sleepy towns with the county courthouse in the center casting all but the Baptist Church in shadow, and stoop porch houses without fences between. Such was the setting of my childhood. Chicken coops in the backyard would not have seemed unusual. Many a dawn was broken by the rooster's crow.

But here, in the suburbs? The rooster's call, that December afternoon was rather startling to say the least. "Whas tha noise?" Pippi said, standing on the bed, peering through the blinds.

"That's a rooster," I said, my face joining hers at the window.

"Wha he wearing? Where he live? Whas his name?" she fired at me.

I settled back against the pillow, pulled her down next to me. "His name is Cunningham," I began. "Cunningham, is mostly black with glossy feathers and a red leathery comb on his head." Pippi burrowed against me until my soft flesh conformed to her shape. "He lives in a little green house in the yard behind a great big white house. His little house has a door, two windows and a wrought iron weather vane perched right on top of the peaked roof. And his closet, Pippi. Oh my, you would love his closet. There are three bars running the length of the closet. And hanging on each bar are the loveliest dresses you ever did see. The nubbliest velvet. Watery silk. Softest cotton. And in the closet is a high ledge high above the highest bar. And this ledge holds every shape, color, and size of hats you could imagine. Black-as-night taffeta with lilting white plumes. A little pink cloche with white polkas. Even a big brown cowgirl hat with a peacock feather stuck in the brim. And under Cunningham's bed are twenty wooden boxes. Inside each box rests a pair of shoes.

"Now, the shoes and clothes and hats, they don't belong to Cunningham. Cunningham is married to a pretty brown and white speckled hen named Hazel. Now Hazel loved clothes, hats, and shoes, more than just about anything. She woke up each morning, counted her hats, the twenty boxes, clucked over each dress on its hanger. She dressed, careful not to wrinkle her dress or crumple her hat, then took up her pocketbook and went to town. She took her breakfast at the little French bistro next to the library, then went to her favorite shop, The Feathered Nest, where she spent hours trying on shoes and hats. Though Hazel dearly loved her shopping trips, she always stepped through the door of their little green house at exactly ten minutes til noon to prepare lunch for her beloved Cunningham. She would wear her lovely new hat, tie a ruffled blue apron over her new dress and bustle about the kitchen, preparing his favorite meal, roasted corn tortillas.

"Well, one day, Hazel did not return home. Cunningham sat in his blue wooden chair, fork in one wing, his feathered chin in the other. He sat there for three hours, watching the door, waiting for his Hazel."

In the month that followed, Pippi and I became dearly attached to our little Cunningham as he scoured every dress shop searching for his speckled bride. Pippi tensed every time Barnaby, the neighbor's cat, slunk over the fence and slithered snakelike toward the open window of the little green house. Each day, at noon, our dear rooster's call, Cunningham crowing for his vanished Hazel we would imagine, would begin a new installment of our saga. Surely, a far cry from a Dicken's novel, but our afternoons passed quickly, until finally my long sleep ended one morning with Tommy's birth.

The Cunningham stories continued for awhile. Each day at ten minutes till noon, Pippi and I would snuggle into the pillows beneath my bedroom window and wait. We sort of had a rule that the story could not begin without the rooster's crow. But there came a day when all was quiet. The noon hour came and went. No Cunningham. And so our story ended. Happily, of course, with Cunningham and Hazel (whom I quickly rescued from the soup pot of a wily fox) moving to a country estate, Hazel filling each of the thirty-two rooms with an obscenely large amount of clothing.

So ended the Cunningham saga. But there would be more stories to follow. We had discovered the magic of Storytelling.

When you read a book, the story is limited by the words on the page, the imagination of the author and illustrator. When you spin a story, there are no limits. And anyone can enter the story at any time. The current of a story can change directions, speed up, slow down, at the slightest tightening of the listener's jaw. Real life experiences of listener and teller are caught up in the story. I rarely tell a story alone. My listeners become co-authors, their voices joining mine in creation. There is nothing quite like it.

Not too long ago, Pippi began talking about the babies God would give her. She's decided she wants a large family and wanted assurance that God would give her many children. Not wanting her to imagine God as a sort of Santa Clause or magical genie who grants wishes, I told her the story of Hannah and Samuel. I told the story in typical Cunningham fashion, feeding her the story through her five senses. Hannah's white clothes clung sticky with sweat, dusty after hours, face pressed to the ground, laying her broken heart before God. Hannah's tears lay wet on her face, raised to recieve God's favor, like the lightest finger brushing her cheek.

Kid's need this stuff. They need to hear the rushing wind. The cicadas evensong. They need to hear the thunk of sandals against the hard dusty road. They need to taste the tender meat flavored with exotic spices. Without these tangibles, there is nothing to connect them to the truth of the stories. Children first experience the world, first learn about the world with their five physical God-gifted senses. To teach a toddler about a tree, place his hands on the rough bark. Let him crunch the leaves underfoot. Maybe set him in the crook made by two branches. To first teach a child about music, don't tell her about scales, and notes, and rests, and such. Place her hands on the piano. Play a recording of a great symphony. And art? Let them smear that paint all over the paper, table, maybe even their own body. Why should teaching children about the Word of God be any different? Lay out before the child a feast of words that describe God's might, the wonder of creation, the gentle safety of His embrace.

So tonight, when all is quiet, hold your children close. And instead of opening a book, close your eyes, and listen for the rooster's call. Or, better yet, listen for the voice of God. That same voice that spoke creation into being, a creation speaking of the greatest imagination. Let that voice be your inspiration. As you begin,

"Once there was a man named Jesus . . ."

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