Remembering Rose Post: Nobody told stories like Jackie Torrence
Editorís note: In memory of longtime reporter Rose Post, who died this year, the Post is reprinting some of her columns. This story appeared in the Post on Nov. 11, 1979, the first of many features on Jackie Torrence that Rose wrote.
Some people sing in the shower.
But not Jackie Torrence.
And cackles, high piercing black-witch cackles that ice the blood and prickle the skin.
Or she moans, moans like a lost ghost looking for a permanent resting spot, crying for the past.
Or groans ó as the water flows ó her voice becoming a heavy door opening to a dark, dank great room in an abandoned castle.
Or she turns the faucet up and creaks a rusty squealing creak, like a sticking door being pushed open in a haunted house.
And squeaks like squeamish steps inching along on mysterious stairs leading up, up, up …
And howls and yowls and neighs and bays and …
Well, the sounds can just go on and on and on just as the stories go on and on and on, ěand sometimes Iím sure my daughter thinks Iím a little cracked.î
But Jackie Torrence, Salisbury native on her way to becoming an internationally known storyteller, has to practice the sounds she uses to make her stories real somewhere.
So why not in the shower?
Or in the car, as sheís tootling along alone, headed toward another school full of children or auditorium full of adults or party people ready to be entertained, all of them with no notion ó until theyíve heard her ó just whatís in store.
But plentyís in store.
The children themselves proved just how much Thursday at Erwin Junior High School when hour after hour, through a whole day, she sat on her piano bench and told stories to seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders who stayed absolutely still and silent, leaning forward to catch a frogís croak, jumping THAT far off the floor when suddenly she snapped a branch in a dark forest, shivering as she uttered the high piercing wail of a bereaved mother.
Her big earrings bounced and the sparkling rings on her fingers flashed magic stars and her eyes widened and narrowed with the pace of her story and the children listened.
Oh, my, did they listen.
Once, just once, a youngster laughed nervously at an inappropriate place.
ěShhhhh,î his friends turned on him spontaneously, ordering him to instant silence. ěShhhhhh!î
And he shhhhhed, at total attention for more tales.
ěHello,î Jackie Torrence introduced herself to each class at Erwin. ěI tell tales ó tall tales, medium sized tales, and very, very small tales ó and lots of ghost stories.î
And sheís off.
Not that she ever expected to spend her days traveling all over North Carolina and the country telling stories, and no oneís more surprised than Jackie Torrence that sheís told stories in 30 states, Canada and Mexico and is right now trying to juggle her schedule to fit in an invitation to tell stories in Sweden in January.
But she knew she would have to do SOMETHING.
Wanted to be somebody
ěWhen I was at Price High School, I was preoccupied with wanting to be somebody. We chose quotations to put under our pictures in the annual and mine was, ëWhat shall I do to be forever known/And make the age to come my own?í A teacher told me that was selfish. But I told her, ëThatís the way I feel. I donít want to just live and die and nobody know I did anything on this earth.íî
But becoming a storyteller was the result of a series of happenstances, all unplanned.
ěMy life had been so enriched by Abna Lancaster, who taught English at Price High School ó she had just an incredible storehouse of Afro-American literature and she made us learn it ó and Dr. Mason Brewer at Livingstone. He excited me with his Uncle Remus stories. It was so much fun to hear him.î
But she never thought of telling stories herself until her marriage had broken up and she was trying to support her daughter as an assistant at the High Point library.
ěI worked at the Washington Street branch and children would come in and tear the place up every night, so I started telling them stories and kids started coming to hear my stories.They didnít tear things up any more but I didnít get much done.î
As a result she was invited to tell a story for a community service program. It went so well that she was assigned to the childrenís story hour, which grew from five children to as many as 200, and ultimately to tell stories in the High Point schools and on High Pointís television station.
ěI was telling stories all day long and reading stories all night to be able to digest them so I could tell them,î and it just got to be too much at an assistantís salary. So she left the library and entered High Point College to get the degree she didnít get when she left Livingstone to get married.
But calls came for Jackie to tell stories, and soon ěI started getting so many jobs I had to quit. Iíve got my degree now, but I was in and out before I got it.
ěThere were periods when I had no work at all, but then all of a sudden, the calls started coming from Tennessee and Kentucky and Virginia, and it just went like that,î mostly because of an appearance at a party in Charlotte, a column in a newspaper, and an invitation to attend the annual convention of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling in Jonesboro, Tenn., where sheís been a featured storyteller for the past three years.
ěWhen I left the library, I was taking birthday parties for $5 to $15 or$25, and then a man offered me $50 to tell stories at his New Yearís Eve party in Charlotte. I thought that was great.î
It was even greater when a column was written about her and brought an invitation to the Jonesboro convention.
A national ëhití
ěAll the really big nationally known story tellers were there ó Richard Chase and Diane Walkstein, all the big names ó and I just panicked. I told a Granite Quarry storyî ó and she was a storytelling hit among storytellers. ěPeople said ëYou mean youíre not getting but $25!î
Since then thereís been no problem getting work. The problem has been getting it scheduled. At the moment sheís booked solid ó mostly for schools where she generally does a week of storytelling for an entire system and finishes with a concert for the community ó through Dec. 23. With a week out for Christmas, her calendar is then full again … right through to Halloween of 1980.
Sheís got tapes of her stories and a record about to come out and sheís writing a book of stories her grandmother used to tell and she still canít believe that whatís happened to her is happening. But she loves it all.
Her favorite story, which she calls ěBuried Alive,î was another accident.
ěMy car ran hot in Asheville, and I pulled up to a house with an old woman sitting on the porch. She looked at me and said, ëThat contraption give up on you, didnít it? Come on up here and sit a while.î Jackie did, and they talked, and the old woman insisted on hearing a story when Jackie told her she was a storyteller.
ěWhen I got through, she said, ëI got me a story, too,í and she told me a true story about her mother who was buried alive. Grave robbers opened her grave immediately to steal her rings and cut her fingers off to get the rings. That brought the woman to and she got back home,î scaring her husband so that he tried to talk her into going back to the grave.
The old woman who told Jackie the story was taking care of her mother when she died in 1947 ěand she wouldnít believe it until she had five doctors examine her.î
The story runs an hour and 40 minutes long and is a favorite for story concerts.
So are the Uncle Remus stories.
ěTheyíre not being told any more because people feel theyíre racist.î Thereís a whole generation of children, she says, who never heard of Uncle Remus, but ěIím telling them. I get away with it now because theyíre wonderful stories,î and times are a little calmer than they were. ěI tell people they belong to both races. They do.î
Besides, telling the Uncle Remus stories is part of being a revivalist storyteller, which is what Jackie is.
There are two kinds of storytellers, she explains ó the traditionalists who are the old folks like those in the mountains who had down stories from generation to generation.
ěBut nobody told me stories so I donít have anything to hand down.î
Revivalists, though, are those who pull legends and tales from folktale anthologies and pick them up from other storytellers and from experiences like that with the old woman in Asheville and make them their own.
Storytelling itself, she believes, is being revived after a fallow period, largely because of television.
ěBut right now,î she believes, ěstorytelling is becoming one of the top kinds of entertainment because storytellers I know are being booked for conventions and parties and all kinds of places.î
In addition to Uncle Remus, she loves all the old stories, the Grandfather Tales and the Jack Tales, and the regional tales of all the places she goes.
ěWhen I go into a new area, I use the interlibrary loan system to look for books of stories from that area.î
Once she finds them she works hard to make them her own and to let them do the thing they do best ó let childrenís imagination soar.
ěChildren can develop all kinds of skills from hearing stories. They get better at concentrating and stories can stimulate the imagination. A good story is a motivational tool for reading. When kids hear the stories, they want to get the books and read.î
And so does Jackie Torrence, whoís always looking for a good story but never forgets the ones she knows.
ěI sometimes lose my car and car keys. Sometimes if itís a great big lot where my car is parked I have to wait till all the cars leave to find mine ó but I never forget the stories.î
And she believes there will be some children, at least, who will never forget Jackie Torrence.
ěSometimes when I walk through a mall or a shopping center in a place where Iíve told stories, I hear children tell their mamas, ëThatís her,í and the mama will say, ëWho?í And they say, ëthe story lady.í î
When that happens, she remembers that quotation she chose to put under her picture in the old Price High School annual.
ěWhat shall I do to be forever known …î
And she feels good.
Torrence died Nov. 30, 2004, at the age of 60. Mike Dunthorn of Knoxville, Tenn., who had heard her stories as a child wrote this in a letter to the editor of the Post: ěFor me, and so many others like me, Mrs. Torrence will always have a special place in our hearts, in memories of learning, laughter and spellbound happiness, listening to her tell those stories as only she could.î