Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Lisa Daffy

 Jul 25, 2016 2:25 PM 
 Jul 25, 2016 4:25 PM

Ninety-five years and a couple weeks ago, Mary Lavelle was born in County Offaly, Ireland, one of seven children. At 14, she immigrated to England to work, eventually making her way to New York. In the 1970s, on a trip home to visit her childhood haunts, she was separated from her luggage at a bus depot when confusion over a ticket resulted in her bags, but not her, getting on the right bus. Stranded in unfamiliar territory, she spent the day under the care of the driver of another bus. That driver followed the route of the first bus, checking at each stop for the wayward bags until they were found.

Skip forward some 40 years to a Saturday morning in early July, when Ms. Lavelle merrily recounts the kindness of both the bus driver and the taxi driver who later that day helped her find a hotel room for the night. Listening intently to her story is a small audience at Story Salon East, a weekly storytelling gathering hosted by the East Hampton Library.

“Looking back on the chances I took, I remember thinking, ‘I’m a woman traveling alone. Am I being silly getting into this taxi by myself? Where will I end up?’ But here I am. The care and the concern of that bus driver and that taxi driver are something I have always remembered.”

In the wake of nationwide grief over a spate of tragic killings, all four storytellers this particular Saturday chose to focus on the small human connections that nourish our better angels. And that, said Steve Sobel, the founder of Story Salon East, is why it’s so important to have a place where people can come together to tell their stories.

“These are the kinds of stories people share over a happy dinner table,” he said. “It’s casual enough and comfortable enough that nobody feels embarrassed. There’s no review, no critique; it’s not about performing, it’s just about sharing stories. Our stories are important.”

Jackie Friedman, a part-time East Hampton resident and memoir writer, read a coming-of-age story about the summer she spent as a teenager in the Catskills in 1964, a few months after the assassination of President Kennedy. “That summer she wanted to dance in a world where only the expected would happen. … She longed for the world before those shots rang out in Dealey Plaza.”

Ms. Friedman said she has always loved both telling and listening to stories, and remembers hearing a friend’s father talk about running from the Nazis in Germany during the Second World War. She says storytelling is crucial to our understanding of the world and of history. “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it, did it actually fall?” she asks. “If we lose our stories, we lose our history.”

For East Hampton resident Susan Harder, inspiration came from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who, in response to recent events, urged Americans to connect with someone from a different race as a way to take one small step away from the things that divide us. 

“I thought, ‘Yes, I want to connect with someone from a different race because once you connect with them, you stop being afraid of them, and you stop making assumptions about them,’” she told the room. “But I don’t work with people from another race, and I didn’t want to be condescending, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Then I was watching the Velocity channel yesterday while three gentlemen were at my house cleaning my windows. I could see that the young black man was looking over my shoulder at the cars. So I went over to him and asked, ‘What are the cars you love? What are the cars you hate?’ Turns out we loved exactly the same cars, and we hated exactly the same cars, and once we got talking, it wasn’t employer-employee, it was just two people talking about cars.

“I’m a little choked up talking about it, because when Hillary Clinton said that, about connecting with someone, I really wanted to do what she was suggesting because we all feel so powerless in this situation. What the hell can I do about cops getting shot in Dallas? But when that young man left, he turned and waved, and there was just that moment. There are terrible and beautiful things in this world, and human beings are capable of the best and the worst. We’ve got to grab hold of the best instead of catering to the worst. Kindness is very powerful.”

Still in its infancy, Story Salon East is modeled after the Story Salon in Los Angeles that Mr. Sobel participated in for several years. Having relocated this past January to East Hampton to be near his sister, bestselling author Dava Sobel, Mr. Sobel said his biggest hesitation in moving was leaving behind his beloved storytelling group.

“They meet on Wednesday evenings, and 30 or 40 people would show up every week, and a few of them would tell a story. I started out just going to listen, but little by little I began to get more involved, and began telling my own stories, and when I decided to move here, I thought, ‘I can’t leave that behind.’”

With his sister’s encouragement and help, he was able to gain a space to use at the library every Saturday morning. While the crowd this particular Saturday was small, he’s confident turnout will grow once more people hear about Story Salon East and give it a try.

“It is my hope to have six or seven people telling stories each week,” he said. Each storyteller gets seven minutes, and stories can be about anything. “It could be about something that happened a few days ago or something that happened decades ago. It could be fact or fiction, serious or funny.”

For people with stories to tell, and people who love hearing good stories—and who doesn’t?—Story Salon East promises a weekly respite from all the duties and chores grasping for attention, and a little time to indulge the child inside who begs, “Tell me a story.”

Story Salon East meets on Saturday mornings at 11 at the East Hampton Library. Those interested in telling a story may register ahead of time by calling 631-324-0222, extension 3.