Durham County

Wheeler: Spoken word, handwritten letters make lasting impressions

One night, with snow settling over the Adirondack Mountains and the innards of a new Family Dollar store going up nearby, Karyn Traphagen’s mother had pineapple chunks for dessert.

Pineapple rings would have been fine, too, she said in a long-ago letter to her daughter, but thank heavens no one tried to make the woman eat her pineapple crushed. No, no, no.

Laughter interrupts Traphagen as she shares the seemingly dull and oddly juxtaposed details of her mother’s eight-page missive with the audience at Talk Story, a spoken-word variety show. The handwritten letter, shown in a slide, was just one of scores that her mother stamped to Hawaii when Traphagen, a physicist, lived there.

Watch Karyn Traphagen tell her story about her mother and the postcards on YouTube. This column continues below the video.

Sending and receiving those letters was almost like exchanging hugs, her mother believed.

Exactly, I think as I listen to Traphagen, one of seven storytellers at the free event at the Casbah nightclub this week, but it’s the handwriting that makes it intimate. Seeing the loops and curls and lines unique to each person is like remembering Grandma’s rose-water smell or hearing Daddy’s tenor twang. Helvetica ain’t Mommy.

Taking it with you

Similarly, listening to someone tell a story instead of reading it yourself engages more senses, making the connection more meaningful.

That kind of bond is what Brittany Smith, 26, of Morrisville was seeking when she chose to attend Talk Story. The copywriter, who works from home and often feels isolated, laments how little she even talks on the phone, given all of the texting and emailing she does. We laugh when we realize we can’t make technology a villain, though, given that we both learned about Talk Story online.

“Storytelling is an art form,” Smith says. “When you read it, you hear it one way in your head, but when you hear them say it, you get to be a part of their story.”

And to take it with you, I think. Saying that storytellers share themselves is not a figurative statement.

Another performer, Mark Schreiner, tells the story of an apartment in his building being on fire and not knowing whether anyone lived there. Watching police officers carry an unconscious man from the apartment made him ashamed, and the Duke University writer vowed never to let those around him live in anonymity again.

I take that thought with me.

I also take a postcard featuring a picture of the Washington Monument.

Something really special

See, when her mother was dying, Traphagen lived nine hours away, and she despaired that she couldn’t visit often. Her salve was to revive her mother’s almost-hug routine, only this time it would be her sending daily, handwritten pieces of herself on postcards to her mother.

One postcard featured an old car, and on it Traphagen recalled to her mother the types of vehicles their family had owned. On another, a baby with a bowl of spaghetti on its head evoked memories of similar straits daughters and granddaughters had been in.

“What I was writing was stories,” Traphagen says. “There’s just something still really special about a handwritten note, about something that someone’s gone to that extra trouble to do.”

She then challenges her listeners to choose from among the postcards she has brought and to send off a sliver of themselves. It makes me sad when I can imagine no scenario in which my children, king and queen of Textistan, would handwrite something to me.

But someday soon, my dad will read: “Remember when me and the kids met you in Washington, and it was fantastically frigid for April? All of the grass around the monument was gone because of repairs, and we stood in a tight circle, faces bent against one another’s chests and backs, screaming every time the wind slapped us with a new pelting of pebbles? It was so ridiculous, we had to laugh.”

The handwriting will be a wondrously weird script he can’t ever seem to decipher, but it’ll be mine.