On Storytelling

This essay originally appeared as the introduction to my edited version of Ines Puotinen's memoirs.

From early on in graduate school, almost 20 years ago, I was interested in giving careful attention to the farm and why it is was important to me. References to the farm and its role as a valuable homespace even made a brief appearance in my master’s thesis. But, it wasn’t until I took a narrative selfhood course during my Ph.D and encountered theories on storytelling (from Trinh T. Minh-ha and Dorothy Allison) that I was motivated to devote serious time to thinking through my relationship to the Puotinen farm.

I think I understood, maybe only in a preliminary way at that point, that hearing and passing on the stories of the farm were crucial to my sense of connection to the Puotinen heritage and the Farm as a homespace. I decided to interview family members so I could hear their stories and, with them, create new meanings and new stories about (and at) the farm. These interviews turned into the first farm film, The Farm: An Autobiography.

In 2002, when, with a lot of help from Scott Anderson, I created the second farm film about the Puotinen women as storytellers, I tentatively claimed my own role as a storyteller who aimed to listen to and build upon the stories from past generations of Puotinens. Since then, much of my thinking about the farm and how I belong there, comes out of a need to not forget those stories. To process them. And to share them with others, but in new ways that reflect my perspectives and experiences.

Storytelling is not the only tradition in the Puotinen family that needs to be honored and passed on. But it is the one that speaks the most strongly to me. I’m fascinated by my grandma’s memoirs, which she wrote over three winters in the late 1980s, and her commitment to storytelling. Not only did she take the time to type over 30 single-spaced pages of her recollections but, as described throughout the memoirs, she repeatedly made the effort to tell some important stories within her community. She brought in pictures for the Bethany Lutheran Church anniversary celebration when no one else was providing them. She volunteered to report the church news to the local Finnish paper when she didn’t know Finnish very well, so that the reporter who had been doing it faithfully for years could retire. She agreed to tell stories at the church banquet because the pastor was counting on her. And she devoted a part of three winters, when her health was failing, to documenting the family history for her three grandkids. Grandma Ines was a dedicated storyteller.

Why did she tell her stories? What compelled her to do so? Was it, as many of her accounts in these memoirs suggest, out of a sense of duty and responsibility to others? Definitely. But, in reading her stories more closely, and conjuring up my fuzzy memories of her from when I visited the farm, I think she was also compelled to tell them because they helped her, and those to whom she was telling them, to feel joyful. Telling and often swapping stories made her laugh. My grandma loved laughing and, even though her life was very difficult, she had fun.

I can almost see the twinkle in her eye as she typed up the story about how she and Kully would compete to see who could change my dad’s diaper the fastest. Or hear her chuckle and see her wave her hand forward as she remembered and wrote the story of how, when she and Ellen couldn’t sleep, they met up with Eino in the kitchen and heard how Emil’s snoring was keeping him awake.

I deeply appreciate how my Grandma was able to document her joyful spirit through her stories. Spending all of this time with her memoirs and thinking carefully about them has enabled me to reconnect with her. And it has helped me to not forget her.

As a storyteller, my grandma didn’t dwell on the more difficult aspects of living and working on a farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She might have written that it was terribly hot and that they could only get relief in the basement or that her failing health, due to untreated diabetes, made her afraid that she might fall off the steps as she walked onto the church stage. But, she only mentioned them briefly.

Why? Was it because she didn’t want to sound like she was complaining? Or because she believed her audience could read between the lines or draw upon their own memories of struggle to understand? Or because she felt her struggles were private and not meant to be shared publicly? I can only speculate. My grandma died when I was an immature 16-year-old; I never thought to ask her.

I imagine that focusing on the funny and playful stories about life on the farm, or life with my Grandpa Kully, was needed. It enabled her to keep her joyful spirit. Dwelling on struggles can be too much, especially when life was so hard. Sometimes laughter is more important.

I am a different sort of storyteller than my grandma. And I need (to tell) stories for different reasons. While I don’t want to dwell on the struggles, I do want to hear about them and how they exist beside the joy. Frequently, it is those struggles that make the joy possible. And, it is hearing about those struggles that makes a place, a person or an experience real to me. Remembering the struggle helps me to resist romanticizing or mythologizing my grandma or her experiences.

In reading Grandma’s memoirs, I found myself wondering about her struggles and the struggles of those who lived on or near the farm. Why, for example, did she and Grandpa only have one kid? My sister Anne and my mom recall reading in some of Grandma’s other papers (which I haven’t located yet), that Grandpa Kully became sterile after he was exposed to some highly toxic chemicals. What happened? How did she cope with this tragedy, especially when she wanted lots of kids and they were so needed on a farm?

I also wonder how difficult was it to make the decision to stay on the farm while the rest of the brothers and sisters left? Was the family meeting that took place in 1943, during Johanna and Elias’ 50th wedding anniversary, a contentious one? Did Grandma have any doubts about staying? Did she ever resent the other family members for leaving?

And, what really happened to Martha? How did she die? Why were there so many different stories about her death? Why didn’t people talk about her more?

As I try to not forget the farm or my grandmother, I want to keep asking and being curious about these questions. They serve as the foundation for my vision/version of storytelling. Like my grandma, I have a joyful spirit. But my joy, although often experienced through laughter, is motivated by curiosity and a sense of wonder about what isn’t told in the stories that provide us with meaning. And it is driven by my urgent need not to forget and lose the connections to the place and the people that have so profoundly shaped who I am.