The Magic Coat

I know it’s happened to storytellers since time immemorial, but it’s never happened to me.

I was minding my own business, sort of, performing last night at a lovely senior living facility in Boca Raton, Florida, as I do once or twice a month, to 25 people, many of whom have attended my regular performances there over the past year. The theme this time was personal storytelling. I was highlighting my public radio segment The Public Storyteller, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary this month. Over the past four years, we’ve collected about 200 personal stories, or, in folkloric terms, memorates, from South Floridians about their experiences here in the area.

I was making the point that personal storytelling connects us, how we can see the world through someone else’s eyes when we listen to their stories. How, as is said often by storytellers, “You can’t hate someone once you’ve heard her story.” So I summarized some of the most memorable stories from the Public Storyteller, and then I shared a few performance pieces from my own life. Finally I asked an audience member to tell a brief story.

One of the stories I told from my life had to do with a “magic” coat that I had had as a child. I was at that liminal state between still believing in magic, or the tooth fairy, and not. Having a fertile imagination, at age eight or so, I wasn’t quite there yet. I was also an innately religious child, which added to the reality/fantasy confusion.

Anyway, my mother was going to school at the time, so I did a fair number of chores and errands for her. I learned to make soup. (Recipe: One can of Campbell’s, one pot. Heat. Stir.) I walked down our long hill through the shortcut to the supermarket once or twice a week to pick up a few items. I cleaned the house to supplement my allowance. ($2.50 for seven rooms. What did I know? I wasn’t in a union.)

Anyway, that winter, I noticed that about once a week, when I reached into my ski jacket pocket, I found money. Sometimes it was a few coins; other times it was a couple of bills. I was shocked. My parents were frugal, and I knew they weren’t the type to give me money for no reason, particularly without telling me. But I couldn’t figure out any other explanation—unless … I was being compensated from Above for helping out my parents? What can I say, I was that kind of kid.

Anyway, without going through the entire story, I will tell you that I eventually figured out that I hadn’t been giving my mother change from the grocery shopping. When I realized that, I started handing her the money. And on that day, something inside of me, a little bit of childhood, died.

That was it: a short, simple story about the end of innocence. After the performance, however, a lovely woman who attends all my shows fairly ran up to the stage and told me that when I started telling the story, she was shocked, because … it was her story! As a child growing up poor in Michigan, SHE had a magic coat! SHE couldn’t figure out why she was getting cash in her pockets, either! In her case, however, it was her dad who was putting in a dime or a quarter.

Interestingly, she found my story very sad—which I never had. I just took it as a fact of life. On the other hand, I found her story a lovely comment on her relationship with her father. But more interestingly still, here were two women, separated by hundreds of miles (New York and Michigan) and maybe a generation or two, with such similar stories. It made us both think of Roberta Flack’s lovely old song “Killing Me Softly.” (“I felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud.”)

But why should I be surprised? This is the human condition. And this—you guessed it—is storytelling.

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