When I was a kid, my grandmother never outright accused me of lying. Instead she’d cock her head, look at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, and ask, “Are you tellin’ stories?” My mother’s mother had a number of endearing habits. She said the word wash like warsh and fish like feesh. Her white hair was an adorable dandelion fluff, and she wore an old-fashioned apron when she cooked, sneaking me treats. She was pretty cute when she cursed too. I’m one of those people who think it’s hilarious when elderly people say naughty words, but it wasn’t just that I found her colorful language amusing. It was because I could see her when she did it—not her as an old person, but her as a person. I remember catching glimpses of her when she was moved to a nursing home after suffering a stroke and losing most of who she had been. It was close to Valentine’s Day and she and the other residents made construction paper hearts during craft time. I asked her if she was going to give her valentine to my grandpa. “Depends on how he acts,” she said. What a character.
I suppose writing, or “tellin’ stories” is a socially acceptable form of lying. Some would argue it’s also a form of mental illness, considering all the characters who live in a writer’s head. If that’s true, I don’t want to be sane, because I’ve come to believe that the characters are always right. That is, when I let the characters take charge and drive the story, it turns out much better than my original vision. I don’t always know the ending, and sometimes my characters surprise me, but that’s when things get interesting. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
I don’t remember when I first started telling stories, but I do know I started by telling them to myself. Like a lot of little girls, I had dolls when I was growing up. My favorite dolls were mermaids and fairies, not Barbie. I remember going on a long road trip with my family and telling myself stories in my head, acting them out with dolls as I watched the landscape change from dry desert to green fields. I don’t remember the stories, or even where we were going, but I remember what it felt like to tell the stories, the excitement of watching a scene play out in my imagination. I had a set of Disney paper dolls—Cinderella and Prince Charming, Peter Pan and Wendy, and many more. They too played a part of my inner world, though never in their prescribed roles. I gave them different names, different relationships, different stories.
In school I was easily bored, and after finishing my assignments, I’d draw. Most of those stories featured me and my friends on wild adventures with mythical creatures, sometimes inspired by books I’d read, sometimes inspired by dreams. I’m not embarrassed to admit I drew stories even in high school. I wasn’t the best artist, but the habit kept me entertained, and kept me out of trouble. Without those stories to sustain me, I don’t think I’d be who I am.
These days I tell stories with words rather than drawings, but the experience is much the same—losing myself in another world, seeing things through my characters’ eyes. I don’t always know where the stories come from, but I suspect they stem from a desire to escape reality. Reality is so often dreary and boring, isn’t it? Where’s the adventure in normality? Doing what everybody else is doing requires no daring.
I like to ask “what if” questions. What if stray cats were really goblins in disguise? What if sea monsters did exist? What if that seemingly benign fixer-upper really was haunted? Once I have an idea and can see the world as my characters do, the story gets rolling and the fun begins.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
When I was twelve I thought I was cool because I learned how to ride a motorcycle. My uncle Dan, who is a few years older than me and has always been more of a cousin than an uncle, taught me. He was cool because he was in high school and had his driver’s license. Me, not so much. I was just a skinny kid with holes in the knees of her jeans and a fondness for climbing trees and building forts.
One time when I was staying at my grandparents’ house, my uncle took me for a ride on the back of his dirt bike. We went off road, to this cattle pond at the bottom of a pit. It hadn’t rained for a long time, so there wasn’t any water and the mud had dried out, leaving the surface fractured like puzzle pieces. With the engine idling on the edge of the pit, Dan asked me if I wanted to go down there. I looked at the steep incline we’d have to drive down and said no. “Okay,” he said, ignoring my protests, “Hold on.” I wrapped my arms tight around his waist and off we went. It was a whole lot of fun until we got to the middle of the pond. It wasn’t quite as dry as we thought. The first two inches were a dirt crust, and below that was a foot of mud. The bike sank, and we had to wade out, walking the bike.
We got back to solid land, hopped on the bike, and sped off toward home. The problem was the bike didn’t have fenders, so all that mud spinning off the back tire flew up at me. By the time we got to the house, my back was covered with mud, my hair plastered in filth. Grandma was mad. “How did she get so dirty?” she yelled at my uncle. I thought it was hilarious.
My grandpa let me ride the bike on my own. The only real warnings he gave me were to watch out for the tailpipe, so I didn’t burn my leg on it (I did, and one time was all it took for me to avoid it from then on) and to use the brake. Once, I panicked when the bike got going too fast and I forgot where the brake was, so I just put my feet down and let the bike go. That was a bad idea, but better than crashing. My legs got scraped up, but my head was okay. I think someone, probably my mom or dad, told me to wear a helmet. I remember putting one on, and having a hard time seeing because it was too big. I don’t think I wore it after that.
What I did wear were my grandpa’s aviators and his black, rubber irrigation boots (like galoshes but for farmers). Paired with cutoff jeans and my favorite pink shirt* (which read, Girls can do anything boys can do—better!), I made quite a picture, I’m sure. I wore the boots (several sizes too large) because the bike bled motor oil, and I wasn’t supposed to get the sneakers I wore to school oily. Instead, my chicken legs got splattered as the oil ran down into the boots. Still, there was nothing like feeling my hair flowing in the wind, growing more tangled and stringy every time I circled my grandparents’ house at a thrilling pace of 15 miles per hour.
I imagined I was a real biker, even though the dirt bike didn’t look or sound like a respectable motorcycle. Instead of a thunderous roar, the engine whined. Less Bhah—VROOM! and more Vreee, vree, vreeeeeeeee!
I think all this posturing on my part was meant to impress a cute older boy who lived down the road from Grandma’s. Tragically, I don’t think the he ever noticed. He was too busy doing whatever it is cute older boys do.
*With three brothers, two male cousins, and an uncle who was basically a cousin, I became a feminist at an early age.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I wouldn’t say my family is psychic, but we’re not exactly normal. Let’s just say we’re sensitive to certain things, and as a result, we’ve got a lot of creepy stories to tell. Maybe it’s because of our Scottish heritage, our ties to the old world. Or maybe we’re just tuned in.
The first thing you need to know about my grandma is she’s cool—I’d say cool for an elderly person, but she’s always been cool. Her signature color is red, and she can still rock a killer pair of boots, even in her eighties. She grew up in a poor family, but her father set aside money so she could take dance lessons. Vaudeville was giving way to cinema, and maybe he hoped she’d someday be a star. She didn’t hit the big time, but she retained a certain flair that set her apart from her peers.
She’s also the luckiest person I’ve ever met. If there’s a raffle to be entered, you can bet my grandma will enter and win. That’s not to say she hasn’t had her share of bad luck in life, or that she’s won the lottery, but she has an uncanny knack for winning drawings and finding help when she needs it. Hopefully that part of her Scottish DNA has been passed down to her grandchildren.
The third thing you need to know is that my grandma loves scary stories. When I was a kid we’d eat junk food and watch B horror movies together. There was one about killer bees, and another about a mummy’s hand that skittered about on its own, an image which likely scarred me for life. She had a fear of being presumed dead and then buried alive, and I remember there was a movie about this too. It was terrifying and I loved it. That part of her DNA definitely got passed down.
My grandma used to tell stories about living in a haunted house when my dad was a young boy. She said she’d wake up at night to see a strange mist swirling overhead. The ghost, who she dubbed Ella, liked to repair things. Once my grandma found a button sewn on a dress, a button that she swore had fallen off, that she set aside to sew back on. Another time there was a horrible banging noise coming from the laundry room. My grandmother had guests over, and they asked what the noise was. My grandma brushed it off and said, “Oh, my washing machine is broken. That’s just Ella fixing it for us.” After that, the washing machine worked just fine.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015