|Sharon Kennedy has been a professional storyteller for 25 years.|
Relating through laughter and tears
When storyteller Sharon Kennedy talks about her nursing home experiences as the sole advocate for her ailing mother, people often react emotionally. They laugh, cry, and on at least one occasion begin to shout.
During a performance at the Middleborough Library, a couple of audience members called out, “That’s right!’’ as Kennedy recounted a tale of the bewildering experiences caretakers face in doing a job no one is prepared for - overseeing the care of a disoriented elderly parent.
“Many of the people in the audience are going through just this at this moment or have just concluded it,’’ or can see it coming, Kennedy said. “They are always thinking they could have done a better job. There is always guilt. None of us ever think we did the perfect job.’’
When people laugh aloud or otherwise emote during a show, “you know you’ve hit a chord,’’ she said. In a word, the dramatization of a complex, bewildering, and often painful experience is cathartic.
Kennedy, a professional storyteller for 25 years, will perform “Which One of Us is the Mother Now?’’ tomorrow night in Sharon.
Described by the town’s First Congregational Church, which hosts the program, as “a daughter’s story about love, laughter, and lessons learned; tears, trials, and advocacy,’’ the tale has its roots in Kennedy’s 16 months as the sole advocate for her mother, who entered a nursing home because of dementia. With no siblings nearby, Kennedy was the only one who talked to the institution’s psychiatrist and nursing director about her mother’s care.
“If you go through something like what I went through with my mother in the nursing home, you think maybe I could help by taking notes and paying attention to my experience and create a show that would be relevant for anyone who has gone through this,’’ Kennedy said.
It does help, said Jake McAvoy of Sharon, a financial counselor who organized the show.
“This is something that really resonates with people in the sandwich generation,’’ he said. When he speaks to groups, he says he sees heads nodding at the mention of the nursing home issues.
“People live longer,’’ McAvoy said. “Now we have caretakers, either a spouse or a child.’’
Trained as a teacher, Kennedy has a master’s in education from Salem State University and leads workshops for teachers on using storytelling in their classrooms. Kennedy has developed tales for both school children and adult audiences and performed them widely.
Her CD of children’s stories from around the world, “The Patchwork Quilt,’’ was nominated for a Grammy Award. What she calls her “fifteen minutes of fame’’ brought media attention, including a feature story in Yankee Magazine on her history-based stories.
Working on commissions from the Lowell and Lawrence historical associations, she developed fictional characters based on the immigrants who worked long days and struggled to survive in New England’s factory cities.
When teachers came to one of her shows at Lowell, she “took the hint’’ and put together a version of the show aimed at a school audience.
Her tale “Mary Margaret O’Connell, Lowell Mill Girl’’ - a composite character who began working in the mills at age 15 and lived in a house built by her father using an empty flour barrel for a chimney while her mother washed floors for the big Yankee houses - has been performed some 400 times at schools, museums, libraries, and elsewhere.
Her other stories for children include the tale of a Pilgrim girl at Plimoth Plantation and “Stories of Strong Women and Girls’’ aimed at grade-school audiences.
Her stories for adult audiences include “An Evening with Nora Joyce,’’ James Joyce’s wife, and “An American Storyteller in Ireland.’’ For her Irish-themed stories she traveled to Ireland and collected stories from 24 village seanachie, storytellers who learned their tales orally, through repetition and memory, and passed them down through the generations.
Her nursing home story is the result of “continuing to push the envelope and try new things,’’ Kennedy said. And as tough as that experience can be, audiences should know that it’s fine to laugh at the risible moments.
“I’m a professional,’’ she said, “I know you need to laugh. I don’t want to tell you a sad story and make you cry for an hour.’’
People also need to remember, especially on Veterans Day, McAvoy said.
Pointing out that Nov. 11 is known as “Remembrance Day’’ in the United Kingdom, he said Kennedy’s story of sustaining loved ones to the end of life “is also a kind of remembrance day, remembering and celebrating loved ones alive or passed.’’
Tomorrow’s program will include a brief discussion after the show and light refreshments.
“Everyone wants to talk afterwards,’’ Kennedy said. “They have so much to say to each other. It’s good.’’
Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.