These Eyes

Saturday, August 28, 1999, At the mouth of Provo Canyon, Orem, Utah - It is late afternoon on the final day of the tenth annual Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, and there is one more session left. Though many people have left the festival, the Cottage Canopy is packed, with people crowding around the tent eaves, and bringing in extra chairs. They are here to see Carmen Deedy, to hear her tell a story, and to perhaps re-live a piece of their lives through her eyes.

Though she began this career serendipitously - after telling stories at her daughter's school, over a decade ago - Deedy had preparation early on. "I grew up in a family that told stories," she tells me after the show. "And I grew up in the south, where not telling stories was a lack of imagination." Deedy must have quite an imagination, for she is quite busy these days, living a "gypsy life" as she calls it, flying around the country, as one of the most popular storytellers in this nation - her adopted nation.

CARMEN DEEDY IS AN ACTRESS, who writes all her lines. She takes the stage, in front of hundreds - or thousands - of people, and tells a story. She uses no props, no costumes, and only a single take. She sometimes plays two or three characters, and if she makes a mistake, there are no other actors she can hide behind. But the best thing is, If she doesn't like a line, she can change it, because she wrote all of them.

Deedy was born in Cuba, and her family emigrated to the U.S. and Decatur, Georgia in 1963. Her childhood has been a wellspring of stories for her work, with a blend of Hispanic culture, poverty, family ties and unabashed love for relatives, despite their (perhaps exaggerated) faults.

One of her most prominent assets comes from her heritage - namely her Cuban accent. Usually latent, it is always ready when she needs it, and some of the best times she uses it are while telling of passionate times of conflict. Listening to her relate tales of her mother and father lobbing adjectival volleys brings you right back to the days of Lucy and Ricky. It is then that you really see the vigor with which she leads her life.

CARMEN DEEDY IS A COMEDIENNE, who tells one, long, joke. Storytellers are entertainers, and they not only tell traditional folklore and ghost stories, but also mystery, family and just, plain funny stories. Many of Deedy's tales are bittersweet and emotional, and many have a lesson, but most are humorous - at least in places - to keep up the pace, as some take as long as 45-minutes to tell.

In each story, she travels through several moods and emotions. "It's like a meal," she says. "You want your palette to have lots of flavors." The reference to food is not accidental, as Deedy uses cuisine often - and the audience loves the taste. "People tell me; 'My great aunt, or my grandmother made succotash or made borscht, and I hated it! But God, I miss her now! I wish she were here to make it,'" she says. "A lot of the food stories bring that up in people."

CARMEN DEEDY IS A DANCER, who follows her own tune. You won't hear music during her set, but her body sways and bends and rises, and it nearly talks, in complete animation with the story. Every move is choreographed and helps bring the words to life. If she were a TV newscaster, she might just throw the copy down, and show the audience how; "three" (holds up three fingers) "firemen" (rugged, brave expression) "with their long hats and heavy coats" (hands actually draw a fireman's hat and bulky coat) "bravely carry" (arms holding something large, shoulders showing the weight) "three innocent" (face showing helplessness) "flaming" (hands flare up) "fajitas to their table at the Mexican cafe." (deadpan face.)

As you listen to her talk, and you watch her move, you find yourself watching her eyes, and you can see the whole story right there. They are how she found this tale, and they are how she will tell it. The humor, the sincerity, the sorrow, grief, joy and passion are right there in those two, dark pools of enthusiasm. They are, quite possibly, the brightest, darkest eyes you have ever seen.

CARMEN DEEDY IS A WRITER, who gets a single shot at composition. She not only knows that a story has a beginning, middle and an end, but she has mastered the invaluable tools that are invisible to the listener, including; suspense, foreshadowing, symbolism, character building, transitioning and a good, strong climax.

As I write this, I can change words and paragraphs, but Deedy publishes her stories live, and she can't say; "wait, let me move this part to the beginning - just forget that other part..." She does, however, tell her stories several times through the years, and can repair them, and amend them, and let them evolve into something that works well for her. She can do this because she enjoys a benefit that other writers don't; she gets to see her "readers'" reactions, and work from there.

CARMEN DEEDY IS A MAGICIAN, who makes beautiful memories out of harsh realities. Listening to a storyteller is entertainment - it is escapism. When you listen to Deedy tell a story of her childhood, you leave your own life for a moment and travel to the deep south, and you live in a small house in Georgia, with Cuban parents, and you hide your small body under the dining room table and listen to them quarrel, and you see the love between them, and you feel the reality of being small and helpless, and in love with life, and you see how beautiful and even humorous it is to witness the best of times as well as the worst of times.

When her family left Cuba, they left everything behind. "There is wholeness - to me - of being stripped of everything," she says. Her father once referred to faces in a photograph of prisoners in a German concentration camp. "As I looked at that," she says. "I saw that there were some people that looked almost regal - they'd lost none of their dignity. That's probably the most amazing thing my father ever taught me. That when you know who you are, no one can take anything away from you."

CARMEN DEEDY IS A DIABETIC, and a mother, and a divorcee, and a Cuban immigrant who grew up poor, and all these things, whether good or bad, tragic, tender or tough, may show up in her stories, usually in a positive, beautiful way. They show up in such a courageous and dignified way, that if any of them apply to you (and many of them do) you somehow feel better about yourself, and if they don't, well, odd thing is, you kind of wish they did.

It isn't easy, to pour out emotions time and again, and to share the intimacies of your life with strangers. "The audience isn't supposed to be your therapist," Deedy says. "You don't get up there so that they can take care of you. You get up there because you've worked through all this crap, and now you have something to tell them that you think is really wonderful for them." It is perhaps her dedication to her audiences that has made her so popular with them.

CARMEN DEEDY IS AN INSPIRATION. Her ability to tell every story in a positive light, to encourage people to love and forgive and strive against the odds, and her way of breeding enthusiasm is inspiring. After her performances, young fans gather around her, not only for autographs, but to tell her their stories and to ask her advice.

I love young people," she says. "They are just unadulterated life! They want to know, that even though human beings are flawed, that some people rise above it, that some of us say 'you know what? Maybe I've done some lousy things in my life, but that's not who I have to be my whole life. I can be better than I was.'"

Carmen Deedy will continue her gypsy life of traveling around this country, telling stories, just as long as it pays the bills (some storytellers are paid over $2,000 a day at festivals) and more importantly, as long as it inspires her to inspire people. But, right now it is the evening of the festival's final day, and she has one more story to tell. The nearly full moon hovers over Mount Timpanogos, and pours soft light into the SCERA amphitheater, in downtown Orem. The place is packed to the top of the hill for the festival's closing event, and there are over 3,000 people between myself and Deedy. So, I lean against a tree and watch her bravely tell one of her Catholic-turned-southern Baptist stories here in the heart of the Mormon Church. She finishes the story beautifully, tying up the tale using our own heartstrings. From way up here, I can barely see her, let alone those eyes, but I feel she can see me, as must everyone else on this hill.

(Doesn't it make sense that a storytelling event is held at the mouth of a canyon?)

            MUSIC !                     PUPPETS !               YARN SPINNING !             POTTERY ?

The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival benefits the Orem Public Library, and is one of the largest storytelling events in the nation. Catch it next year, in beautiful Provo Canyon, in Orem, Utah, on August 30 through September 1, 2000.

Like this story? Check out the True America Tis of Thee Archives

Return to our
MAIN page