Riffke was troubled because her children were disobedient, begins professional storyteller Carol Leigh Wehking as she nurses a warm drink at a local coffee shop.
Based out of Dundas, Ontario Wehking spends her life telling stories, teaching the craft and, as the director of Toronto’s Storytelling Festival, she supports other followers of the oral tradition.
This week, she’s in Whitehorse to tell and teach at the public library.
And once she starts telling, she’s captivating.
Wehking continues: Everyday Riffke would work hard selling eggs at the local market, only to come home to her children yelling and fighting.
One day she went to see Rebbetzin, the rabbi’s wife, for help. Rebbetzin told her to go home and pack all her troubles in a parcel and come back the next day.
When she returned she noticed many women coming to Rebbetzin’s house with parcels, some big and some small.
All the women were invited in to drink tea together, but then, as they were leaving, each woman was told to take home a different parcel than they came with.
Riffke was excited and chose the smallest parcel she could find, but when she tried to pick it up she noticed it was very heavy.
So she peeked inside and saw it was the death of a child — immediately she threw it down, she didn’t want her children to die.
Next she chose a large parcel that was light, but when she peeked inside and saw it was loneliness she threw it away too.
Riffke fingered all the parcels in the room but ended up leaving with the one she brought, and when she got home she realized it wasn’t that bad, says Wehking who finishes the story with a smile.
This Jewish folktale is just one of hundreds of stories stored in Wehking’s memory — a virtual library — there’s a mix of traditional tales and original yarns, she says.
Although she likes to mix the didactic with the delightful, Wehking is attracted to stories with lessons.
Storytelling is the way we learn, she says.
A good story has all the things that matter to human beings — love, loss, and, perhaps most importantly, a moral.
“The stories I choose have to have a resonance with me in my own life,” says Wehking. “More often the stories choose me, more than I choose them.”
Wehking tells stories and teaches others to embrace the oral tradition.
She says anybody can be a storyteller; everyone does it either formally or informally.
The first step is choosing a story.
It’s important to read, but it’s more important to listen, Wehking says. “First you listen, then you tell.”
And stories that are good for telling, like folktales, are often sparse and to the point.
Then, it’s just a matter of shaping the story, tailoring it to the teller, and honing it until it’s easily understood, she says.
Wehking began her training in theatre and was part of the way through her PhD in post-Second World War pacifist drama when she quit to raise her children and follow her calling as a teller.
For the past 15 years, Wehking has brought her tales across Canada and all over the world.
She’s brought Canadian legends, like Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee, to places as far away as Australia
“It’s something my children have really appreciated,” she says. “They like to tell their friends that their mother is a storyteller and to have that world of wisdom at their fingertips.”
In fact, when Wehking’s daughter left to spend a semester of high school studying amid the cathedrals and ruins in Europe, she didn’t ask her mother for advice or money; she asked: “Did you have a story to send me off with?”
Wehking had two, one about drawing upon the wisdom of elders and the other about thinking for yourself and being independent, she says.
Storytelling is not just for kids. Wehking prefers to bend the ears of adult audiences.
“There’s no story that is not suitable for adults, but there are for children,” she says.
A lot of the fairy tales told to kids are sanitized, or Disneyfied.
“They are descendents of the original, harsher folk tales.
“There are Cinderella stories in practically every culture and most of them involve something rather grizzly, like instead of the ‘evil stepsisters’ maybe she was in an incestuous situation — something you wouldn’t tell to children.”
When Wehking tells stories to children she takes the middle ground and stays true to the story’s folk roots, without straying into the macabre.
Although kids are quick to point out how her stories differ from the Disney cartoons, “usually they understand they’re getting something that’s more real,” she says.
Wehking is a Quaker and follows the religion’s beliefs in peace, simplicity, equality, truth and the concept of God existing in everyone.
Her religion informs her interest in social justice issues and influences her storytelling. She tells original tales of well-known Quakers like Elizabeth Fry, a major British prison reformer, and of the work done by her co-religionists to help US slaves escape through the underground railroad.
Wehking is a member of the Storytellers School of Canada and the Storytellers of Canada.
As well, she founded a collective called Uppity Women, a group who tell stories of “sheroes”: real or fictional females who led extraordinary lives.
Wehking will host a free workshop, Growing Stories from Seed, on Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Whitehorse Public Library.
The session will teach tellers how to take stories from their lives like family anecdotes and shape them for presentation.
After, at 2 p.m., she will be recounting tales for all ages. Call 667-5239 for more information.