“It’s about old friends,” Meg Ryan’s Sally tells Billy Crystal’s Harry in the 1989 classic When Harry Met Sally. It’s New Year’s Eve, they’ve just confessed their love for each other and shared their first deep kiss as the clock wound down. And in the awkward silence that follows Harry wonders aloud about the meaning of the song, the one that’s trotted out every New Year’s Eve and then tucked away again for next year.
It’s actually an old Scottish folk song, a 1788 poem by Robert Burns set to music. And the words literally mean “long ago.”
Somewhere along the line, the modern version became a New Year’s Eve standard and the broad theme of an unassuming story slam on Dec. 29.
Triad Storytellers Exchange gathered on the cold winter’s night, a couple days before the turning of the calendar, for their monthly storytelling contest in the back room of Scuppernong Books. Amidst bricks walls and shelves of used books, seven people told 5-minute stories about old friends and New Year’s memories to a dozen listeners.
Some stories focused on ordinary challenges that, when solved, bring the kind of deep relief that sticks in a mother’s memory decades later. Charlotte Hamlin asked what others in the audience typically do the first day of the new year, demonstrating the conversational ease of a professional storyteller of more than 15 years. Hamlin gave birth to a son on Jan. 1, 1970, and on the first day of 1978 she found herself entertaining eight 8-year-old boys with more energy than she could muster. When the birthday games ended far too early, her husband’s light went off: a screaming contest. One-by-one in their basement, he and the boys yelled as loud as they possibly could, exhausting themselves.
“Who would’ve thought it would be one of the best New Year’s Eve presents I’ve ever had?” Hamlin said.
Laksmi Devi delivered something of an elegy for her high school friend George Lehman, a brilliant and popular man.
“Our chemistry teacher geared the test for George,” she said. “There were 153 points on a given chemistry test and I’d get them back with about 23. I’m thinking, Oh, Lord. But George would say, ‘23? Well, that’s a C!’”
Devi drew an arc in the air with a giggle as she described how she came to understand the concept of grading on the curve.
“My brother was a doctorate in chemistry and I thought, Surely some of this has rubbed off, but it must have been on my shoe because it certainly wasn’t in my pen or my thoughts,” Devi said. “My Auld Lang Syne? I’m remembering George.”
Stories were built with quips and turns of phrases, with rough ideas of where to begin and where to end. The rules of the slam prohibit rehearsals, notes or props.
The magic lies in the remembering.
In the days before dear George died, he crafted a crossword puzzle where the first letter of each word spelled out a birthday message from his hospital bed.
“Never lorded over anyone,” Devi said. “He just really loved people, and felt that each of us was such a gift in his life.
Jeanne VanBuren’s chauvinistic brother couldn’t love other people less and has a nasty habit of proving so on Facebook. A few weeks ago, VanBuren wrote a sarcastic post about her flooded basement. It didn’t take long for Art to ruin the fun with a misogynistic comment.
“I wasn’t going to air my dirty laundry on Facebook,” VanBuren said. “So, I did the next best thing: I private messaged my ex-sister-in-law… I was like, ‘You know what? You deserve a trophy for bein’ married to him for as many years as you were.”
Art’s ex-wife, who works at Home Depot, joked about not killing him because she knows orange doesn’t suit her.
Join the Triad Storytellers Exchange at their next slam on Jan. 27 at Scuppernong Books (GSO).
“I decided I had to find a trophy for her for Christmas,” VanBuren said.
She couldn’t find any trophies in thrift stores but she did find a silver ice bucket, similar to the one her mother willed to her in honor of their champagne-drinking memories. VanBuren filled the ice bucket with knickknacks alluding to Art’s “episodes” on Facebook, like hand sanitizer for the time he mistook personal lubricant for an off-brand Purell and “some chalk for when she does kill him.”
VanBuren received before-and-after photos of a now-polished ice bucket a few days before the slam, along with a story from one of her mother’s visits to Art and his then-wife.
“My mom’s comment to her was, ‘You get to have silver so you have something to do when you don’t want to talk to anybody,’” Van Buren said. “Now on New Year’s we can both have our champagne bucket and say cheers to each other.”