The world is losing its storytellers. Time keeps marching them out of the margins.
They are becoming like the milkman, who used to tiptoe to the door by the dawn’s early light. They are going the way of cowboys, chimney sweeps, soda jerks and switchboard operators. One day, they may become as obsolete as scriveners and alchemists, and we will have to look them up the dictionary. (Or Google them.)
Storytellers are an endangered species in times when people communicate in tweets of 140 or fewer characters. Telling stories is becoming a lost art in the age of posting, texting and storing notes on electronic tablets instead of toting canvas book bags.
We lost one of the best when they laid Elizabeth Baker “Bebe” Cook to rest.
Bebe died on Aug. 3 in Fernadina Beach, Florida, where she had gone to live with family members seven years ago. On Monday morning, she was remembered -- and her life celebrated -- at Vineville United Methodist Church. They stood to sing her favorite hymn (“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”), heard the reading of Scripture and listened to stories about a unique storyteller.
Appropriately enough, kudzu vines were placed beneath the beautiful flower arrangement. Bebe was the self-annointed “Kudzu Queen.” As a child growing up in the mill villages of Thomaston, she could point out every kudzu patch on the road to Macon. She kept scrapbooks with stories about the “vine that ate the South.”
If Macon had a Storytelling Hall of Fame, Bebe’s name would be next to the front door. If the city had a Mount Rushmore of Raconteurs, her face would be chiseled on the summit at Coleman Hill.
She could gather words, like children at her feet, and make them dance around the room. She wore bright, fancy dresses and funny hats.
Bebe didn’t simply tell stories, she became part of them. She spun so many tales she might have been a seamstress. She jumped in and out of characters at the snap of a finger. She was forever looking for a stage. As a youngster, she would charge neighbors a dime for admission to her garage, where she wrote, starred and directed in her own shows.
Her life was not without its struggles. She contracted polio in 1956, when she was pregnant with her first child. She moved to Macon in 1962 after divorcing her husband. She suffered from bouts of depression, then picked up the pieces and hit the “play” button.
As a single mother with three children, she earned her teaching degree at Mercer University and worked for 28 years in the Bibb County school system. She taught at Clisby and Springdale, then became curriculum director for Bibb’s elementary schools for 20 years.
When she retired in 1993, she offered her letter of resignation in the form of a rhyme: “Violets are blue/Roses are red/I just wanted to retire/Before I was dead.”
Bebe was legendary as a storyteller in local schools, retirement communities, nursing homes and vacation Bible schools. Her favorite place was the Price Educational Center at the Methodist Home for Children and Youth. She spent many happy hours there in the company of kids.
Her story chest, more than 120 in all, included fables about the Titanic. She had her own twist on the popular fairy tale of Rapunzel and the prince. (It took place in the Sears courtyard at the Macon Mall.) When my oldest son was in the second grade at Tinsley, Bebe once had the entire class believing she was Beatrix Potter.
She was especially fond of Dr. Seuss, which is why Sarah Jones wore one of Bebe’s wild hats when she spoke at Monday’s memorial service. Sarah quoted the great doctor to describe her friend: “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
Karen Shockley recalled the time Bebe re-enacted the Easter story for a dozen members of the Tran family, who had moved to Macon from Vietnam. She acted out the entire script, from Jesus hanging on the cross to lying in the tomb. She raised her arms high for the Resurrection with a big “Ta-Da!!!”
There were more colored squares to Bebe than a Rubik’s cube. Her aversion to the kitchen was well-documented, which amused her friends, since her maiden name was Baker and her married name was Cook. She once took Krystal hamburgers to a party as an appetizer. Another time, her contribution to a covered-dish supper was just that -- a covered dish. An empty covered dish.
She was a world traveler and could claim to have visited all seven continents. The never-a-dull-moment Bebe was known to climb aboard everything from camels to jet skis and hot-air balloons. Said Sarah: “She always had to be going somewhere and doing something.”
There was a photograph at the Methodist Home of her on a motorcycle, wearing a Hooters T-shirt. “Who is that?” asked Alison Evans when she took over as president and CEO at the home last year. “That’s one of our trustees,” said Rick Lanford, laughing. At board meetings, people used to fight over who got to sit next to her. They all wanted to be entertained by her stories.
One of her greatest qualities was that she not only could tell stories, she knew how to listen.
Pat Conroy once said: “‘Tell me a story’ still comprise four of the most powerful words in English.”
When our great storytellers are gone, they leave behind challenges for us to pick up their bookmarks and carry on.
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.