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The struggles of a story “re-teller”

I recently discovered that I’m not a storyteller — I’m a story “re-teller”. This came as somewhat of a shock to me while completing an activity on writing identity in Kristen Kieffer’s Build Your Best Writing Life. (Affiliate links aren’t my thing; I just love the book!)

Here’s the first part of my identity:

“I’m a story re-teller. I draw inspiration from signs of life lived: old cemeteries, black-and-white photos, newspaper clippings. I like to add a hint of the fantastical and magical to my stories and characters to make them larger than life.”

My novel-in-progress, Escape Artist, is inspired by the true stories my family has passed down to me. Moonshine, magic, murder: Escape Artist covers 70 years’ worth of fantastical yarns respun umpteen times in my aunt “Lucy’s” living room and on my dad’s front porch.

Part of the prologue reads, “My aunts and uncles, my dad, they’re getting older. I don’t wanna bury their legacy with them when the time comes. They believe their stories are worth sharing with the world. And so do I.”

Yesterday, my uncle Robert, one of the relatives whose legacy inspired this very book, was laid to rest.

Uncle Edward (far left), Uncle Robert (middle left), Dad (middle right) and Uncle Joe (far right)

Uncle Robert passed away on New Year’s Eve after a sudden illness. Though I wasn’t close to him, he and my dad were more than just brothers: they were best friends. They sang karaoke together most Friday nights for over ten years. I’d even tag along with them occasionally when I still lived at home. (They had no business bringing my 14-year-old self to the bar with them, but we made some wonderful memories together.)

My dad (left) with Uncle Robert in 2011 at his apartment, just before we left to sing karaoke.

Uncle Robert inspired one of the main characters in my book: Samuel Aldridge. I chose the name Samuel not only for its Biblical connotations but also for its etymology. Samuel, in the original Hebrew, means “God heard.” Samuel was the first boy born to Ruth and Daniel Aldridge. Daniel wanted a boy to carry on the family name, do him proud. “God heard” that request and blessed them with Samuel.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed several family members for stories. Here are a couple of Uncle Robert’s stories included in the book:

My dad told me that, when Uncle Robert was four years old, their daddy (presumably drunk) caught him playing in the chicken coop and chased him with a hatchet. He ran clear up to his granny’s house, where he hid on the back porch. She found him curled up, fast asleep.

My aunt “Lucy” said that Uncle Robert was scared of their chickens when he was little. (Maybe that had something to do with being chased out of the chicken coop with a hatchet…) Their mama would fix them a sack lunch to take to school, and when they walked to the bus stop, the chickens would swarm him. He’d drop the sack and take off running.

Come on beep!

When Uncle Robert grew up, he worked as a truck driver and traveled the country for over 30 years without a single accident. When he wasn’t on the road, Uncle Robert, his wife, Betty, and their four daughters were singing somewhere.

An ad in The Gaffney Ledger featuring Robert & Betty (and their daughter Gayle*), Nov. 5, 1971

Robert and Betty enjoyed success and local fame as country music singers. They performed at various venues — both as a duo and with their band, The Dixie Ramblers — across the Southeast. They recorded a few records, one of which features their original song, Missing You At Sundown.

Every time the sun goes down, I think about your love…

They even played a show with my bluegrass heroes, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, in Nashville:

Robert & Betty (top left) with Flatt & Scruggs and The Dixie Ramblers

Betty was even asked to be a backup singer on tour with Tammy Wynette. She declined; she couldn’t bear to leave her girls.

Uncle Robert later ventured into property ownership. He took over Southside Restaurant sometime around the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. He opened Elledge Food Mart in the early 2000s, where he hosted bluegrass concerts in the parking lot. I remember thinking those concerts were so corny as a kid. Now that I’ve rediscovered a love for my roots, I’d give anything to go back…

He recorded a bluegrass album about trucking around that time called Come on Beep. Everybody in the family got an autographed copy:

3,791.17 miles

That’s how much distance separates me from family. An ocean and five time zones.

I don’t make it home very often. I was last home in September 2018. It was during this trip that I began writing Escape Artist and interviewing family members for stories. I remember feeling so grateful that I’d recorded my dad and aunt’s stories in case anything happened to them before I could see them again.

But I didn’t do the same with Uncle Robert. I didn’t go see him at all, even though I’d planned to. I don’t know why I didn’t. Out of my three uncles on my dad’s side, he was my favorite. But I just…didn’t.

For the second time in my life, I made the mistake of assuming I could just see him “next time.” This is a mistake I’ve come to regret deeply.

The trouble with retelling stories

In the days since his passing, a critical question from my own prologue has plagued me again: “Is it right to put my family’s stories out there for strangers to read and critique? Even if I change names, fiddle with the branches on the family tree, rearrange the timeline of events to protect them?”

I know I’m doing the right thing by preserving my family’s stories — they’ve got some damn good ones. But writing this thing is very much a one-step-forward-two-step-back process.

The trouble with being a story “re-teller” is that the stories aren’t wholly my creation. Almost all the characters and plot points are based on real people and true events. This book, when it’s finally published, will affect real people — people I love.

I’m lucky because my family supports this endeavor wholeheartedly. But for the second time in recent years, a loved one’s passing has jolted me. I don’t have the time. If I want to “retell” these stories right, I’ve got to get them down right now, while my folks are still here. Life is so fragile — Uncle Robert took sick and passed within less than a week. I never asked him for his side of the story. And now, I’ll never have the chance to.

I don’t have the time. None of us do.

And that scares the shit out of me.

But instead of letting fear eat me up, I’m gonna grab it by the horns and finish the damn thing. I have no choice. This is the story I feel I was destined to write, and I ain’t got no time to waste.

This post is written in loving memory of my uncle Robert Elledge, who’s undoubtedly making a joyful noise in Heaven. “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you…come on beep!”

Robert Elledge

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