Melba Jones' father had a pocket watch. But the way she tells it, it could do more than mark the minutes and hours of the day. If the mood and company were right, its rhythmic tick-ticking could help summon generations long past and link them warmly with the present.
"Even when my dad's great-grandchildren were maybe 2 years old, he'd take them on his knees and he'd pull out this watch," recalled Jones fondly. "Then he would make up little songs to go with the sound of that ticking, sometimes tell stories.
"From then on, everyone was Pap's baby."
Pap's knack for using stories to bring family closer is a legacy Jones would like to pass on to future generations. This weekend, she's going public with it at Once Upon a Story: A Festival of Tales, a two-day storytelling festival featuring seven professional storytellers from across the country. The event runs Friday and Saturday at three San Juan Capistrano locations.
The third annual festival features performances and workshops by returning tellers Diane Ferlatte, Jim Cogan, Cary Trivanovich and Martha Holloway, as well as newcomers to the event Michael Katz, Ed Stivender and Joel ben Izzy. Amateurs Julie Mejah, Marilyn McPhee, Steve McCluer, Molly Flatt and Roberta Drake will also perform.
Although most of the tellers have their own specialties (for example, Ferlatte is best known for her African-American legends and folk tales), Jones has taken a couple of steps to help encourage listeners to integrate storytelling into their family life.
First, many of this year's sessions have been tailored to suit a broad age range so that parents, grandparents and children can enjoy them as a family. Second, to encourage older adults to give storytelling a try themselves, she has arranged a lighthearted how-to workshop led by Holloway, 74, a honey-voiced Southerner whom Jones laughingly refers to as "Martha the Irreverent." There will also be an "old-fashioned story swap" hosted by Ferlatte that will be open to all ages.
Often, said Jones, the best stories to share with your family are not the most spectacular. Nor do they have to have happy endings.
"Sharing your stories, being free to talk about your background, no matter how bad it may sound to the person who's telling, well, it just gives something to a child," said Jones, a Mission Viejo school librarian and mother whose soft twang recalls her Tennessee roots.
"If we just get chatty with our kids and tell them little incidents from our lives, when they face (something similar) they'll realize they're not alone."
Teller Katz agrees. Katz, whose "Katz Pajamas" radio storytelling show airs weekly in Santa Barbara on KCSB-FM, has taught storytelling to all ages but says he particularly enjoys helping older adults learn how to pass on tales to young listeners.
"It's the way it's supposed to be," Katz said. "You can read books about the Depression or someone can tell you about it; they're two totally different things." Katz's stories in San Juan Capistrano will include a tale about his brother and grandfather that he says "touches on some of the unresolved issues older people may have in their lives."
Ben Izzy of Berkeley interprets that idea on an even broader scale by telling stories he has literally carried from spots around the globe.
"Storytelling is passing on the wisdom of cultures," explained Ben Izzy, who estimated that about a third of his repertoire is rooted in his Jewish heritage.
"There's also something about (stories) that manages to cross cultural boundaries," he added. Often, he said, a good story will beget an entirely new story with a different flavor, a point he illustrated by launching into a folk tale from old Jerusalem in which a baker and a beggar woman air their dispute with King Solomon.
Often, he said, after hearing that story, listeners will share with him a similar tale from their own culture, which he then carries to other audiences.
"A story is something like a seed," he said. "You plant it and it grows into a tree and it bears fruit. Eventually . . . you end up talking about something entirely different and wonderful."
Once Upon A Story: A Festival of Tales.
Friday, Oct. 8, and Saturday, Oct. 9. (See schedule, page 16.) Where
San Juan Capistrano Library Courtyard and Auditorium, 31495 El Camino Real; the Old Fire Station Complex, 31421 La Matanza, and Mission San Juan Capistrano, 31414 Camino Capistrano.
Exit Interstate 5 at Ortega Highway. To reach the mission, drive west to Camino Capistrano; the mission will be on the right. To reach the library, drive west off the freeway and turn right onto El Camino Real. To reach the fire station, continue down El Camino Real and turn right onto El Horno.
Ticket prices range from $2 to $10; some sessions are free. Reservations suggested.
Where to call