September 2007

Turkey buzzards and other cherished gifts

How storytelling can bond generations

Nobody tells stories quite like my granddaddy. One of my all-time favorites is the turkey buzzard story. Years ago, Granddaddy and a friend were driving across Texas one summer, and the heat and boredom were stifling. Granddaddy says the road stretched on for miles. The landscape had not changed for hours. Everything looked the same, everything, that is, except for a small speck on the horizon. Granddaddy soon perceived it was a turkey buzzard eating a dead thing in the road. Then, inspiration struck.

“If you speed up this car and get in the other lane, I bet I can catch that turkey buzzard,” Granddaddy told his friend. 

Without hesitation, the friend swerved into the other lane and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. Granddaddy leaned out of the window and braced himself. One second, the buzzard was contentedly crunching carrion; the next it was zooming down the road at 90 mph, clutched tightly in my granddaddy’s bare arms.

Feathers and debris went everywhere, and, for some inexplicable reason, Granddaddy wouldn’t release the buzzard. By the time he finally let the bird go, Granddaddy was filthy and scratched. The intense heat didn’t help his scratches or his smell one bit. He remained that way for hours until he finally reached his destination.

“Granddaddy, why did you do that?” we always asked, laughing.

“I don’t know,” he chuckled, shaking his head at his own folly. “It was something to do!”

Bridging gaps
In a family of six children, like mine, finding “something to do” together can be a challenge. Good stories have helped bridge those gaps between young and old, and have drawn us closer together. Over time, my parents have come to see that stories not only strengthen our family relationships, but also have power to teach good character. 

“When you see a good story or read a good story, you have an emotional connection with it,” my father, Alan Harris, explains. When a father uses a story to establish an emotional connection, “that is an excellent time to teach good character.”

This is what Jesus did while on earth. He consistently used stories to capture hearts and minds. In a story, He showed how truths work. Jesus took ideas to their natural conclusion and let His audience see the results for themselves. A perfect example of this is the parable of the Prodigal Son. Rather than lecturing on rebellion and bitterness, Jesus showed His audience what those sins look like. The people saw for themselves the destructiveness of sin and self-righteousness and the greatness of God’s love for His children. Stories build up.

While there are many, many stories waiting to be told in a variety of forms, my family has built unity and character with three forms of stories: family stories, creative fiction, and family movies.

My granddaddy’s story above is a classic example of our family stories. Another example is of a very difficult winter my granddaddy went through as a child. Despite his family’s financial hardships, he prayed for a pony.

Not long after, a nanny goat appeared with a number of kids and took up residence. There was no pony, but my grandfather made the nanny goat pull his little cart. All winter his family drank goat milk and ate goat. A few years later when the family was back on their feet financially, the goat and her kids disappeared. Such stories build faith and remind our family of God’s wisdom and provision.

Preserving memories
Oral stories give us memorable moments, but memories fade. However, the printed page lasts for centuries. My father sat down with Granddaddy a number of years ago and wrote down story after story. The finished stories were collected in a small paper booklet and distributed to the family. Every now and again, my father pulls out the little pink book and reads us a story in Granddaddy’s own words. The book is a precious part of our family heritage.

A number of years ago, Dad added to the tradition in a new way by writing a story of his own. I remember us sitting on the edge of our seats as he read it to us. So when Dad was not busy with running his veterinary practice, he would devote leisure time to writing. About five years and 500 handwritten pages later, Dad finished the story that would become his first novel, Tales of Larkin: Hawthorn’s Discovery.

While at first, Hawthorn’s Discovery was meant only to entertain us, it became a teaching tool as well. I began to see in the book spiritual lessons that Dad had been learning and wanted us to know. Rather than feeling lectured, we loved it. My family waited for weeks so Dad could finish each chapter. Then we waited even longer for my sister to make a trip home from college because she wouldn’t let us read without her. After a very special dinner, we sat around Dad as he read to us.

The premise of the story is about a race of one-inch-tall people who live deep in forests away from all human contact. In such circumstances, danger takes on enormous proportions. Snakes are like monsters, ants are the size of bulldogs, and mice are like buffalo. Hawthorn’s Discovery follows Hawthorn, a teenager of this unique race who must face savage creatures, murderous renegades, and earth-shattering truths to reach and rescue his friends and father, who had been captured by renegades while on a hunting expedition.

Writing and reading the whole story took several years. We laughed over it and discussed it. We kids shamelessly lobbied for the safety and happiness of our favorite characters. (We saved at least one that way.)

Since finishing Hawthorn’s Discovery, Dad has begun work on the prequel, so we can carry on the tradition. My sister, who had no qualms making us wait for her to return from college, now demands that we call her and her husband via speakerphone so she can listen in on each “Larkin Night.” Even scattered across the country, we are almost always together for Larkin Nights. Dad continues to use the story to build our faith and strengthen our resolve to be men and women of character.

As we older siblings grow up, our family spreads out. When we all get together, it is usually for one weekend at a time. One Larkin Night won’t fill it up, so we have begun using film to take our family storytelling ventures to new highs, or lows. We’re still debating which.

Preparing the script and costumes fills us with anticipation. Filming amuses us for several hours. Sometimes we stretch it out over several days. When we are done, we all have a keepsake of hilarious family memories. In my family, the average film is anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes, and is anything but serious, but we have good times.

Building character
Some families are using film to strengthen the character of their children, like the Burns family. On their Web site (, the Burnses describe their experience with film: “Burns Family Studios is a group of homeschooling families with a passion for film. Two years ago, we began our filmmaking odysseys with The Deed, followed by Quest for Glory, our first feature film. As God has opened doors, our family hobby has blossomed into a serious endeavor.”

This endeavor has captured the minds of the Burns children and Chad Burns in particular. Chad is directing the next film, which is about the Saxon invasion of Britain.

“Now, through our work on the Pendragon Project, our group is being transformed even as we hope to transform others,” the Web site continues. “As we strive to inspire our audience to fulfill the vision God has given them, we ourselves are learning what it means to follow a vision God has given to us.”

“Our desire is to use film to impact history, by inspiring our audience to impact their world,” the family stated.

Patrick Henry College Chancellor Michael Farris once told me, “The one who tells good stories well is the one who controls the culture.” With the hearts and minds of the next generation hanging in the balance, good stories can shape the future for Christ. They are a tool by which God “turns the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.”



• Grandparents Day is September 9, a great time to add to your family’s  unique collection of stories. Here are some ideas to get you started:

• Parents, tell stories from your childhood, how you met each other, your wedding, first jobs, first home.

• Talk about highlights from trips and vacations.

• Grandparents, read story books on tape and send to your grandchildren.

• Grandchildren, videotape interviews with your grandparents and other
family members.

• Does anyone write fiction or poetry or songs? Share them with the family.

• Create short films together.

• Record short stories related to the favorite photos you put in your scrapbooks.

• Fill a box with pieces of paper describing things for which you are grateful. At the end of the year, read through the papers and recall all the stories.

• Record family stories in journals or on your computer.

Natalie Harris interned for American Family Radio News in 2006. Her family lives in Lexington, South Carolina, and she is a journalism major at Patrick Henry College.