Journey Jamison on The Moth Mainstage at the BAM Harvey Theater

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Journey Jamison, we are taken into a scene that few of have ever experienced, especially at the age of 15. But in a broader sense, I’ve heard many personal stories about how people reacted during an emergency, and you may have such a story to tell. The details that Journey provides bring audience members into her experience as the scene plays out.

But there’s also a larger story at play here, as Journey realizes how her training prepared her for that situation, and in turn, she was able to provide that same training to the victim’s family, thus bringing that wisdom full circle. Think about how story worthy experiences from your life contain such a circular narrative.


When I was nine years old, my best friend died. We’d spent the entire day together at an amusement park and she’d been struggling to breathe. So when we got home her dad tried to get her as much help as she could, but it just wasn’t enough, and at three o’clock that morning, she died of an asthma attack.

It was always really hard for me to deal with because I’d helped her with her asthma before, and I just felt like I could have done something. So five years later, when my mother and I found ourselves at a grassroot gunshot wound first aid training, I was immediately intrigued. Now, some of you might be thinking, “Gunshot wound first aid, what?”

But I’m from Chicago, and the lack of resources in our communities makes that training so much more important. We don’t have any trauma centers on the South Side of Chicago where I’m from. So I knew the importance of this training and I paid attention. I sunk my teeth in, I got trained two months later, and I’ve been doing workshops all over the city. Yeah, I know how to apply an occlusive dressing with a credit card, but I was still just a regular teenager.

And so, the following summer, I was coming home from my very first day. I come home, I turn on the TV, I crank up the AC, just like any other day, and then I hear it. Back to back gunshots that sounded like they were right next to me, just back to back, to back. And I just thought to myself, “Is this real? Is this serious?”

You hear all the time about gun violence in Chicago, but I’d never come face to face with it like that before. So I jump in gear. I know that I have this training that I can help people, but I know that the first step to being a first aid responder is knowing that the scene is safe and prioritizing my own safety.

So I glanced out the window, and I’m staring almost like I can see through the window, and I’m like, “What is going on?” I’m seeing people who are kind of running away from a gas station and towards my apartment complex. And I knew I had the tools to help. And I never imagined going outside and putting myself in danger to help anybody.

But it turns out that I didn’t have to, because seconds later, my back door flies open, and a young man, 19 years old, comes in holding his neck. It’s bleeding. And he’s just saying over and over again, “I’ve been shot, can you help me, can you help me?” And without hesitation I just said, “Yes.”

And from that moment, it was autopilot. I lay him down on the floor. I’m asking him questions about who he is. I asked him first, “Can I call 911 for you?” ‘Cause we emphasize that a lot in our first aid trainings. That you had to ask for consent for people because they’re their own person, bodily autonomy.

So I asked him, he says, “Yes.” I get on the phone with the operator. They’re giving me a bit of a hard time, but I put my feelings aside and prioritize the safety of the wounded. They say they’re sending a person on the way. I say thank you. I go back to Peta. I’m asking him more questions about who he is, I want him to feel safe.

He tells me where he’s from – the same apartment complex that I’m from – Oakwood Shores. He tells me he wants to go to college, that he’s 19, that he’s confused. And then I kind of realize I’m taking this all in. I’m 15 years old. I’m home alone with a man who’s been shot in the neck, and I’m giving him first aid. I should probably call my mom.

So I take out my phone, and I guess you can call it a mother’s intuition, because as soon as I am about the press call, my phone rings. It’s my mom.

She’s like, “Hi Journey.”

I’m like, “Hi mom.”

She’s like, “What’s up?”

I’m like, “Mom, you are not going to believe this. There’s a man, he’s in my house, fire, gunshot wound. He’s on the floor, I’m giving him first aid.”

She’s like, “Are you serious?”

I’m like, “No mom, why would I lie about this?”

She’s like, “Okay, okay, okay.”

And I can hear the car unlocking, and the car starting up, and I’m like, “Okay, she’s on her way, good.”

So for a second there, it’s just me and Peta, and I’m trying to examine exactly what is happening. He has two wounds. An entrance wound and an exit wound. The bullet went through his neck and up through his jaw. So I’m trying to apply pressure on both sides to get his blood to clot so the bleeding can slow down.

A few seconds later, my mom comes. And you would think that she might be like, kind of hysterical, kind of crazy, but she’s not, because she’d been through the training too. And for a few moments, it’s calm. Peta is calming down, his blood is starting to clot, the bleeding is not so drastic, and it’s calm. And then somehow, some way, people start to flood into my house. Bystanders, I guess, who had seen what was going on.

And my mom, she does a great job at keeping Peta’s privacy. Keeping questions away from him so that he’s not getting more stressed out – shout out to my mom, she’s in the audience – and so we’re just kind of juggling this thing, me and my mom, we’re doing this together, I’m taking care of Peta’s body, she’s taking care of Peta’s surroundings, and then the police come.

And I feel like it’s not a secret that black and brown people are not trusting of law enforcement, quite frankly, it just makes us anxious. And my mom, she didn’t want that kind of energy in our house, she was trying to persuade them like, “There’s no crime scene here. Can you wait outside? It’s very crammed in our apartment.”

But eventually she gave up her battle when they threatened to arrest her. And so eight police officers crowd into our tiny apartment, just watching me apply pressure to this young man. And after the police come which, after the police come, after my mom gets there, the fire department finally gets there. Not the ambulance, but the fire department. So that just gives you a glimpse of what healthcare is like in Chicago. The ambulances don’t really come to our communities that fast.

So the fireman gets there and he’s coming in to check Peta’s vitals and I have my hands over his neck, and he says, “You need to take your hand away.” And I was so overwhelmed and I just had all these feelings of doubt and I just reluctantly pulled my hand away, and just as I thought would, he starts bleeding again.

And I’m just looking at the guy like And then another fire man comes in and he says, “Actually she needs to put her hand back there, you’re doing a good job. And I looked at him and I said, “Okay, I knew it.”

So I am continuing to apply pressure and keep my hand on his wound while they’re taking his vitals and preparing him to get in the ambulance. So then, a few, maybe five or six minutes later, the ambulance does come. They take him on a gurney. They take him away. And luckily my mom was able to get some information from his mentor who was there, so we could follow up with him later.

So my mom, she rushes all these people out of our house, and I go outside, and it’s so chaotic. The ambulance is there, the police is there, my neighborhood is there, the news station is there, and they’re kind of looking to me like this “Shero,” and I’m kind of very overwhelmed, and so instead of fielding questions, I took my story with me, and my experience with me, and I come back inside. I closed the door, I wash my hands, I grab my cell phone and my keys, and me and my mom get in the car. I zone out and I’m just replaying in my mind what just happened.

Then I snap out of my trance, and the car stops, and we’re at the beach. And I’m just like, “Oh my God, what is going on?” And she looks at me and she’s like, “Come on,” and I’m like, “Okay,” and we proceed to join a group of women on the sand doing yoga. And my mom just looks at me in her tree position, and she goes, “Self care.” And I was like, “Okay,” and I was just so grateful, that I had a mom who emphasized that a lot when I was growing up, and that I had the opportunity to really process what just happened in my life.

So, that happened, and then I resumed my life as a normal teenager. I go to camp. Conflict resolution camp, by the way. But I go to camp. I go to camp in Maine. And then I come back, and I’m in the car with my mom and she’s like, “Hey, I got in touch with Peta’s family, and, you know, he thinks you saved his life.”

And I never thought about it like that. For me, I was just in the right place, at the right time, with the right information, and I did the right thing. But to him, I saved his life. So that’s what it was.

So few days later, I see him. I visited him and I said, “Hey, look I know it was really cool that I was able to help you, but I was trained to do that, and I was equipped with the right tools, so how cool would it be if you were equipped with the same tools, and you can help your mom, or your brother.

And he’s like, “That sounds pretty interesting.”

And I’m like, “So do you want me to like, I can set up a training. I can set up a workshop. I’ll come to you.”

He’s like, “Aight, bet.”

So about two or three months later, we were able to train his whole entire family of about like 25 people ranging from three years old to 60 years old. And we trained his whole family in his apartment, and it was the most empowering thing for me.

And maybe some of you are saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry, this young girl had to go through that.” But it’s not something I feel embarrassed about or sad about. It was the most changing thing that I’ve ever been through. And it’s shown me the circle of change. You know, you go to school, and you learn about stories, and you learn about how there’s a plot, and that plot is like a hill, it starts the beginning, and then the rising action, and the climax, the falling action, and then the resolution.

But change, instead of it being a hill, it’s like a circle. And me training his family was this entire experience coming full circle, because I started at a training just like that one. And so maybe he could do something like I did, or I could do more things, but it was so empowering for me as a 15 year old girl to have that kind of experience.

So it changed my life for the better, and it showed me that I can change the world if I wanted to. And I guess it just kind of made me feel like I didn’t have to be afraid anymore of where I’m from and my community. I didn’t have to fear walking outside because I was empowered with the tools that I had. Sorry guys. And I thought about it, and I hear all the time, “Children are the future.”

And I’ll tell you guys, I’m a child, I’m a teenager, and it’s super intimidating. You know it’s like 400 years of slavery, an eternity of sexism, it’s intense, and you guys are like, and you guys are like, “It’s you, it’s you,” and I’m like, “Oh my God,” but this experience showed me that I don’t have to be the future, because I can be right now.

Thank you.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

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contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

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Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

Peter Aguero on The Moth at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Peter Aguero, we hear a tail about family, and strife, and redemption, all within the context of a difficult Christmas. Not a classic holiday story that is filled with good times and cheer, but one that involves the heart. And a connection to family. And love at its deepest level.

Many personal stories are told from a similar point of reflection. Remembering a time in the past when life was difficult and their path forward was unknown. And how tapping into love was central to that future path. Such stories can help folks who are currently living in tough circumstances, as well as remind any of us who have come out the other side to reflect on, and thus to appreciate, the love and support that we encountered along the way.


(minor edits were made to improve readability)

This is a reading from the book of Peter chapter 19 verse 2. I was nineteen years old and I just finished my first semester at college. And I got home with my bag of laundry, and things weren’t looking too good for me and my mom.

I walked into the house, and she had told me over that semester to expect some changes when I got home, and it didn’t really hit me until I walked in the door and the first thing that I saw was that her upright piano that she had had since she was a kid was gone. She had sold it. And I walked through the foyer into the living room and there was just a broken couch, and a television on top of another television. One had a working picture, and the other had working sound.

And all the other furniture was gone. My dad had taken it four years ago when he had left, and for some reason the impressions from his lazy boy were still there as some kind of reminder of what a dick he is. I walked through the living room and through the dining room, and the beautiful dining room set that had been in her family for generations was gone. It was a dark mahogany set, really ornate, with these beautiful carved chairs and a glass breakfront, and a buffet table, and that was gone.

And I walked upstairs to put my stuff away, and her bedroom door was open, and the only thing left in the room was her bed. Her bedroom set was gone. There’s nothing more depressing than a bedroom with no furniture. You can see all the little dings and mistakes and tears in the wallpaper that are hidden by things.

Then I saw in my sister’s room. It was still a shrine to my sister after I moved in with my dad, with her Pepto-Bismol pink walls and her canopy bed, and her toy box. Like she liked she was gonna move back and become a little child again. But she wasn’t.

My bedroom was just the way it always was. Covered in posters, with broken particle board furniture and water bed, for some reason, with a broken heater, so you had to put quilts on top of it so you wouldn’t get arthritis. She couldn’t sell any of that anyway.

I had told my mother for years after the divorce to just sell the house. It was too big for the two of us after my sister left, and it was especially too big once I was gone, when I went to college. And the bills had to have been killing her. But her stubborn Polish pride kept her in the house.

I guess she wanted to show to the outside world that everything was okay, but on the inside it was just kind of decaying around her. But she wasn’t able to really deal with it in any kind of a real way. There was just selling things and and taking it day by day.

She was a nurse, she still is, and at the time she was working on the weekends doing 24 hour shifts at a dual diagnosis psychiatric drug unit, and during the week she took a job at a perfume counter in the mall to make some extra money. And she doesn’t like people telling her when to take a break, so that wasn’t gonna last long.

This was a strong big-headed pumpkin-headed Polock. She got home that day and she was happy to see me. Not as effusive as usual, but you know, she made dinner. She made a tomato casserole that she always made with canned tomatoes Wonder Bread and American cheese. Like yeah.

And we sat in the kitchen on the two chairs at the kitchen table, because the other chair I broke, and the other chair I also broke. And we ate our food, and we talked about College that semester being over, and she said, “Peter, we can’t really have much of a Christmas this year. There’s not gonna be any presents. I got your sister a little something because she doesn’t live here anymore, but we really can’t afford any presents.”

I said, “Are we gonna have a tree?”

She said, “We really can’t afford a tree. Decorations? I don’t have time to decorate.”

I’m, okay, you know, all right, okay.

So she said, “I got an idea. I thought this would be funny. Why don’t we, over the next two weeks, cut pictures out of catalogs and magazines of things that we would give to each other if we could.”

And we laughed about it, you know, and then we cried about it, and then we laughed about it again. Because if you don’t laugh about it you’re gonna eat a bullet.

So the next morning she went off to work, and I decided I was gonna throw myself into Christmas. And I decided I was gonna go get a tree, and I was gonna make this the best Christmas I possibly could.

So this is down in South Jersey, small town, and this is before Walmart and Home Depot and outlet stores are down there, so there was one Christmas tree farm, the Debolt Christmas Tree Farm. So I went over there figuring they’d give me a deal because I used to date their daughter, but turns out they didn’t give me a deal, because I used to date their daughter.

And a tree was like 60 bucks. Screw that. So I went back home and I got a hacksaw and I cut out a tree from my side yard. And it wasn’t even like a pine tree. It was some kind of stunted maple tree. And I brought it in the house, and I put it in the tree holder, and there it is in the stand.

And I went up in the attic. And I got the box of decorations and ornaments, and I hung about – there were about six branches – I put about 20 ornaments on each branch. And then I just took the tangled lights, and I just threw them on it, and it was beautiful.

It was really kind of nice. She came home, and she was, I guess, happy, and that was how that was. And I just started throwing myself into this project. I’ve given my mother everything I possibly could give her for Christmas.

You know, she always wanted a forest green Jaguar convertible. So I cut out one of those, and then Jacuzzi had a shower called the Jay Dream with about 20 nozzles, and a little dude that made sandwiches. And I cut out one of those, and gold and diamonds and jewelry, and a new vacuum cleaner, and everything she could ever possibly want in the world.

And I really kind of sunk myself into it. I’d go over hang out of my friends houses and take their mom’s Currier and Ives catalogs, and get all these catalogs and magazines, so I could give my mom the best Christmas ever. And I felt like I was in a kind of bizarro O’Henry novel, and one that he never should of written. And that just kind of consumed me over the next couple weeks. And I figured, this is sad, but this is beautiful, and we’re
going to connect over this, and it’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be fine.

It was one night, in between coming home and Christmas, and the two of us were sitting watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and one of the TV’s was on cable and the other was on broadcast, so the video was a little ahead of the audio because the audio was on broadcast, but you know, you just pretend you’re in Japan. It doesn’t matter. So we’re watching that, and my mom was so distracted, she was there, but she wasn’t there.

And you know my mother and I were like partners, when my parents marriage broke up. She still feels guilty to this day about maybe making me grow up sooner than I did as being the man of the house or whatever. We were friends, and roommates, and partners. It was me and her against the world. And she was the one I always loved coming home to, and the one that would let me get away with anything, and the one that would always be proud of me when I did something right, and would take a day off from work and drive to the zoo with me when I did something wrong.

And she was not there anymore. This house was crushing her. Just crushing her. And all because she couldn’t see the option of getting rid of it. And it was killing me man. That’s my road dog, that’s my mom, that’s my girl. And I lost her. She just wasn’t there anymore. And it was just killing me. Her eyes were just empty. She was in another world. And she was worried about things that she couldn’t figure out how to fix.

So on Christmas Eve I went with my buddy Brian. We got drunk on a jug of Livingston Cellars wine and went to midnight mass, because when you’re under 21 and Catholic, that’s where you go to see your friends, because you can’t get into the bars yet.

And it was great, mass was awesome. My mom didn’t go to midnight mass anymore, because four years before, when my dad left us, it was during midnight mass. What a dick. As the priest was walking up, he stood up and walked out in front of everyone that we knew. Everyone she grew up with. Everyone I grew up with. Everyone we went to school with, and went to church with, and hung out with.

They all saw our family crumbling in front of us on it so my mom doesn’t… my dad’s a dick… I mean, is he here tonight? No he’s not, cuz he’s a dick, such a dick. So my mom doesn’t go to midnight mass anymore.

I got home that night, and the next morning I woke up late, and I brought my little bundles of pictures tied up with scraps of ribbon, and I put them under the tree, and I waited for my mama come down. And I heard her stirring upstairs, and heard her come down, and making coffee. And she came downstairs in her big red Sally Jessy Raphael morning glasses.

And she came down with a cup of coffee and she looked at the the things I was offering her, and she just like oh oh oh oh oh wait a minute, and she went back upstairs, and she was up there for a couple of minutes. How long does it take to bring down some papers? I hope she’s okay. She have diarrhea? It’s Christmas, I don’t know, post-traumatic whatever.

But any way, she comes back down, and we start to exchange our gifts, and she’s opening up a car in a vacuum in the shower and gold and a brand new piano and a bedroom set and a beautiful picture of a dining room set that would be at home in the White House. I tried to give her everything that she had had to get rid of to keep this life together.

She wanted there, more than anything in the world, she wanted there to be some stability for her kids to have a place that was always going to be home. The home that we grew up in. And it was killing her. And I was trying to do anything I could that would maybe make that better.

So she’s just looking at these things, and just smiling and laughing, and then I started to open up mine. And there’s three of them, and there’s one, it’s a picture of some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and a picture of some Homer Simpson slippers, and a picture of a karaoke machine. All from the same Rite Aid catalog.

It was up in her bathroom, upstairs, because she completely forgot. This thing that I really thought it was a one sided thing, and she’s laughing about it now, over there, that’s hilarious, yeah wave. So she went upstairs to make breakfast in the kitchen and I sat there and it was just kind of, I don’t know, I don’t want to be too silly about it, was I got a needle piercing me in the heart, thank you Madison, it was it was just this life that we had, that was the two of us was, just gone.

She would have done anything for me, and she still was, but it just wasn’t working anymore. And she forgot this thing, because the house was killing her, money was killing her, and everything was killing her. There’s nothing I could do, just nothing.

So I went upstairs, and she didn’t make pancakes. My mom makes really good pancakes. She fries them up in bacon grease, and they’re all crispy around the edges, and she makes me one that’s as big as the frying pan and cuts it out to look like Pac-Man and puts it on my plate, ever since I was a little boy.

She’ll give me a second one if I wanted. But this day, there was no Pac-Man face. Just silver dollar pancakes. And they were all burnt. And we sat there eating these burnt pancakes, wondering what the hell was going on with our lives. Today, 14 years later, if you go to my mother’s house where she lives with her new husband, you can go down in the basement and you can see a million boxes.

And you walk past the Ark of the Covenant and you go over in the back. And if you were an archaeologist you could look at the strata of our lives and pick out which year these things happened. This is when Peter quit football, and this is when Michelle had epilepsy growing up, and this is when their dad was a dick. That’s all of them.

And then there’s one box, if you look at it, in Christmas in 1995, if you dig into it, you can see a little velvet bag with a bunch of small pictures cut out of catalogs and magazines. And right underneath of that was stuff that took place a couple months later.

I got my belated Christmas present. It was a picture that my mom sent me when I was away at school of her standing in front of the house with a for sale sign in front of it. And she decided to sell the house. And she moved into a small townhouse. And she took a little hit on her pride but I got my girl back.

Thank you.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

Learn more about the coaching process or
contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates!

Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

Liel Leibovitz at The Moth from The Avalon Hollywood

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Liel Leibovitz, we hear about a boy growing up who finds out that his father is really a bank robber. It’s not something that most of us can relate to. But there is a larger story about the stereotype of what it means to be a man, and Liel’s journey to deciding what that would be for himself and his son.

We’ve all had relationships with our parents during our younger years, and for those who decide to raise a family of their own, there is that ever present past alongside the desire to make our own child raising decisions. Think about your own experiences, then as you listen to Liel’s story, and review the manuscript, identify the story blocks that you could develop to craft a story of your own.


I grew up in Israel in the 1980s, and my father’s mission in life was to make sure that his only son – me – grew up to be a real man. And so, as soon as I turned four, every Saturday he would take me shooting, which was funny because my arm was exactly the size of a Smith & Wesson .45. Two or three years later, when I was six or seven, my father would take advantage of Israel’s surprisingly relaxed car rental insurance policies and he would rent a car to take me on driving lessons, which were terrifying because even sitting in his lap I didn’t reach the wheel.

And every two or three weeks, there was a special treat. We would stop the rental car by the side of the road and my father would make me go out and change tires, whether the car needed it or not, because in his mind knowing how to change a tire was the epitome of manhood.

I really hated changing tires, and I really hated spending these Saturday afternoons with him, but he didn’t care, because he was inducting me to the International Brotherhood of Macho Men. Every chance he got, he would take me to the movies to see his heroes – men like Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris or Burt Reynolds. I didn’t mind these guys too much, but they were not my idols.

My real idol was a real live person named the Motorcycle Bandit. He appeared on the scene shortly after my twelfth birthday, robbing bank after bank after bank all over Israel. He was in and out of the bank in under forty seconds, never leaving behind any clues to his real name or identity, and he just drove people insane.

He got so popular that Israel’s most famous comedy sketch show – sort of the local version of Saturday Night Live – devoted an entire episode to the bandit, speculating in one bit that he probably never robbed a bank in Jerusalem because he didn’t particularly care for that
city. So you can imagine what happened the next day, when, in an apparent tribute to his favorite television show, the Motorcycle Bandit robbed his one and only Jerusalem bank.

People went insane. Women who worked at banks would write their names and phone numbers on little notes so that if the sexy heartthrob robber happened to hit them up, maybe when he got off work he would find their number and give them a call.

But the people who loved the bandit most were us teenage boys. For us he was a complete hero, and on Purim, which is more or less the Jewish equivalent of Halloween, we all dressed up like him – in a leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet and a big shiny gun.

So about a year and a half later, I’m thirteen and a half, I’m walking home from the eighth grade, and no one’s home, so I sort of mosey over to the kitchen to make myself a snack. I hear a knock on the door, but it’s not a tap-tap-tap. It’s a boom-boom-boom. I open the door, and there are three police officers standing there. They’re not looking at me, and none of them are saying anything.

Finally, about half a minute later, one of them looks up and says, “Son, we arrested your father a while ago with a motorcycle helmet and a leather jacket and a big shiny gun.”

And I remember my first thought was, NO WAY! You think, you think MY DAD, with a beer belly and the receding hairline and the terrible jokes, you think THAT GUY is the Motorcycle Bandit? But in the hours and the days and the weeks that passed, I learned that he was.
The real story, as I soon came to learn, began about two years earlier when my father, who was thirty-five at the time and the son of one of Israel’s wealthiest families, was summoned by his father to have “the talk.” Now, if you’ve watched a couple episodes of Dallas or Dynasty or Knot’s Landing, you know “the talk.” It’s when the rich guy calls his wayward playboy son over and says, “Son, it’s time for you to grow up and be a man, take responsibility for your life and get a job.”

My father didn’t like that at all. So he stormed out of my grandfather’s office, and he hopped on his motorcycle – because, of course – and he drove to the beach, and he’s sitting there watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, and he’s thinking about his life. My father grew up in the sixties, so he believed in sayings like “do what you love” or “follow your heart.” So he decided to follow his heart, and his heart led him to robbing banks.

Now, as it turns out, he was good at it; he was great at it; he was an inventor, an innovator. He was the Elon Musk of the stickup job. And later I learned how he did it, and how he did it was incredible. He would rob a bank in under forty seconds, he would run out, jump on his motorcycle, drive around a corner, up a ramp he had custom-built, and into a van, where he would pause, and like some mad philosopher king, he would ponder this seminal, existential question of bank robbing, which is, “Where’s the last place you would ever look for a bank robber?”

And the answer is – and now is the point in the story where any of you contemplating this line of work may want to pay attention – the answer is that the last place you would ever look for a bank robber is the bank.

So my father would take off his jacket and his helmet and tuck the gun back into his pants, and walk out of the van calmly, around the corner, and back into the bank, which at that point was a crime scene sprawling with police officers. One of these police officers would inevitably run up to my father and say, “You can’t be here, sir, this is a crime scene!”
And my father would look at him with this dopey look and say, “Oh, can I please just make a quick deposit? My wife will kill me if I don’t”, and the police officer would say something like, “Sure, but be quick about it,” and my father would walk up to the bank teller and deposit the same exact cash he had robbed three minutes earlier. This being the 1980s and computers were still kind of new, he made the cash virtually untraceable.

It was a work of genius. He was so good at it, and he became so popular, that eventually he got cocky. He robbed one bank a day, and then two, and then two banks in two different cities. One time he was riding in a cab on his way to the airport when the urge struck. He told the cabdriver, “Would you mind stopping? I promise I’ll only be a minute.” It was literally true, he was only a minute. He robbed the bank, hopped back into the cab, drove to the airport, and flew off for an all-expenses-paid vacation in New York.

But you know how this story ends. Eventually he was caught. And after he was arrested, life got really weird, in no small part because Israel, as you may have heard, being a small state surrounded by enemies, has its own ideas about prison. And one of them is that prisoners get one weekend out of the month off to go home on vacation. The logic being that since the country only has one really secure airport, if you want to go ahead and try to escape through Gaza or Syria, you know, be our guest!

So every fourth Friday, I would go to the prison to pick my father up, and we would go out and have ourselves a weekend on the town. People would come up to him and high-five him and pat him on the back and say things like “Bandit, we love you, you’re cool.” But to me he wasn’t cool. And he wasn’t even the bandit. He was my dad, who had just done something so incredibly stupid that it landed him with a twenty-year prison sentence.

But even weirder than that one weekend a month together, were the three weekends a month apart. Because here I was, and it was Saturday, and there’s no shooting practice, there’s no driving lesson, no changing tires, no Burt Reynolds, and I didn’t know what to do.

So one afternoon I got dressed, which, by the way, was also an ordeal, because when the police searched our house, they took not only all of my father’s belongings but, because we were more or less the same size, also all of mine. So I put on one of the few outfits I had – which was this really ratty, disgusting purple sweat suit with the Batman logo up front, which I assume the police thought no self-respecting bank robber would ever wear.

I walked out and started walking around town, literally looking for a sign. And then I saw it. It was a sign above a theater advertising an all-male Japanese modern-dance show. And I thought about it for maybe five seconds, and then I did something that I’m pretty sure my father would disown me for: I bought a ticket, and I went in.

And I loved it. Here onstage were these amazing, elegant, graceful men, and guess what? They weren’t punching each other in the face, they were not riding Harley-Davidsons, they were dancing. And yet they were so secure in their bodies and their masculinities, and I thought to myself, “If that’s another way of being a man, what other ways are there?”

And thus began a two-decade-long process of trial and error – of trying to figure out what kind of man I wanted to be. And look, some of the things I learned didn’t surprise me at all. I love bourbon, and I’m the kind of guy who would watch as much sports as you would let
him in a given day.

But some other things were really surprising. Like some French poets moved me to tears. And even though bourbon was great, you know what else tastes really good? Rosé wine. And even though I’m really, really good at changing tires, if I get a flat now, I’m calling AAA. I didn’t share any of these insights with my father, because for one thing he’s not really the kind of guy who’s into insights. But, for another, by the time he got out of prison, I was already a man in full – it was too late for him to shape who I became in any meaningful way.

He still comes to visit from time to time, in New York, where I live with my family. And on one of these recent visits, he and I are sitting in my living room, not talking, as men do, not talk. And my son comes prancing into the room – my three-year-old boy. Now, that boy looks exactly like me. Just as I look exactly like my father.

And if there’s one thing in the world that boy loves, it’s his older sister. And if there’s one thing in the world that his older sister loves, it’s Disney princesses. And in prances the child dressed like Princess Anna from Frozen. I look at my son, and I look at my father looking at my son – who, by the way, looked amazing in this light green taffeta with a black velvet bodice and some lovely lacing – and I know that my father is judging me.

But you know what? I don’t care. Because at that moment I realize, strangely, that by going to jail when he did, he didn’t just free me up from the burden of this macho nonsense, he also freed up my son to grow up as a happy boy who can pretend to be whoever he wants to be, even – or especially – a pretty, pretty princess.

And I can’t tell you how grateful I am that instead of going through life mindlessly as two tough guys, my son and I are free to become real men.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

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Leonard Lee Smith on The Moth Mainstage at the Paramount Theatre

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Leonard Lee Smith, we are treated to a narrative of how his Granny brightened the holiday season despite his mother’s divorce and the subsequent move from Alabama to Southern California.

Even though we’re watching his talk on video, Leonard’s delivery is one that can make us feel as though we’re sitting in his living room. You hear the emotion in his voice, yet the emotional swings are not dramatic. It’s subtle, yet powerful.

He allows us to be there when opening each heavily reinforced cardboard box filled with mounds of homemade Christmas treats. And he brings us full circle when he tells us about hanging Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on his own door during the holidays.

How did you experience the holidays when growing up? Was there someone in your life who made the experience special? It may have been a family member, as was the case with Leonard, but it could also have been a friend who altered the spirit of the season.


It was Christmastime 1974. I was ten years old, but I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas that year.

The previous spring my mother and the man who was to become my stepfather – when all the divorces had been finalized and he and my mother could marry – had moved us from rural central Alabama to sunny Southern California. My brother and I were leaving behind our father and all our extended family. This would be my first Christmas away from Alabama.

My beautiful and elegant mother took to California like a swan to a royal lake. My soon-to-be stepfather was a California native. My very athletic little brother reveled in a temperate climate that allowed him to be outside eleven months of the year.

I, however, was a fat, awkward child with a high-pitched voice and a heavy southern accent. I was having extreme difficulty with the transition to a West Coast lifestyle. My first day at my new school, I walked to the front of my fourth-grade class to introduce myself. All I said was my name and where I was from, and the class erupted in laughter, with jeers of “He talks funny” and “He has a weird accent.”

It took the teacher nearly two full minutes to restore order, and she was angry at me for having caused a disruption. I was so disillusioned after that first day that instead of walking home after school, I went to a nearby gas station and used a phone booth there to try and place a collect call to Granny Smith, my paternal grandmother.

She was my biggest ally. I was going to ask her if I could return to Alabama and live with her and if she would send me the money for a bus ticket home. But despite several attempts the line was busy and I never get through. My mother was always encouraging, nagging, and badgering me to lose weight and always trying to help with that endeavor with whatever the latest diet craze was.

She had been a fat child herself, but with puberty she had gained height and lost weight and undergone the proverbial ugly-duckling transformation to become a great beauty in high school. She saw weight loss as the panacea of all problems and believed it to be the key to my happiness. She was very relieved to have me away from the annual holiday sugar binges and weight gain that my Granny Smith’s cooking provided.

Granny Smith was, for me, everything good about Christmas. Her language of love was food. She was an excellent baker and candy maker. She would cook for weeks in preparation for Christmas Eve, when all of her children and grandchildren would gather at her house.

Every favorite dish, dessert, and confection had been made to specification. Her table and sideboard groaned under the weight of all of the food. My brother, my cousins and I would burst through her kitchen door, brimming with anticipation, our arrival announced by the sound of five silver bells suspended from red velvet ribbons hung on a plastic poinsettia bouquet on the door.

Her house was tiny and saturated with tacky Christmas decorations and cigarette smoke. But to my childhood aesthetic, it was glorious. She sewed new pajamas for all of her grandchildren. She scoured newspaper ads, catalogs, and stores all over town to get us exactly the toys we had requested. She was interested in me and my happiness. She was my resilience. She was magical, and I missed her desperately.

It was Sunday evening, and I was moping around the house, dreading Monday and the return to school. Fortunately, there was only one week left until the Christmas break. I was longing for my familiar southern Christmas. That Thanksgiving we had spent with my step-father’s extended family. He and my mother had finally gotten married in Vegas over the summer.

His family were polite, kind people, but I did not know them and fit poorly into their established routine, and I feared that Christmas would be more of the same. The phone rang. It was Granny Smith. She often took advantage of the discounted long-distance rates after 7:00 p.m. on Sundays.

She spoke with my brother Todd and I chatted for nearly half an hour, asked us about our life, and school, and how things were going, assured us she had gotten us the toys that we wanted and they would be there by Christmas. But before we hung up, she asked to speak to our mother. This request made my brother and me very anxious.

When our parents separated they didn’t so much dissolve a marriage as declare war on each other. My brother and I knew that the campaigns and battles of this war could be long and brutal. My mother considered Granny Smith to be in the enemy camp. They maintained a civil but strained relationship. My brother and I were always worried that hostilities might erupt whenever they spoke to each other.

Granny Smith informed my Mother that she had sent a Christmas package and that it should arrive in the coming week. My mother said, “Thank you, but you didn’t have to do that. It’s very expensive to ship things across the country. I hope you did not have to spend a lot of money.” Despite their differences my mother understood and respected that Granny Smith was a woman of very modest means. Granny had been a widow for nearly thirty years and worked mostly menial jobs. For her, money was always scarce.

Granny said, “It wasn’t very expensive at all, and I was happy to do it.” They exchanged polite but tense pleasantries, wished each other Merry Christmas, and then said good-bye, and my brother and I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure enough, on Thursday afternoon after school the phone rang, but it wasn’t the US Postal Service – it was the Greyhound Bus Lines calling to say we had a package waiting at the bus terminal in Claremont, California.

My mother said to the clerk on the phone, “I didn’t even know that Greyhound shipped packages.” The clerk said, “Oh, yes ma’am, and we’re much cheaper than the US Postal Service because we don’t deliver door-to-door.” We have some of the cheapest rates around. My mother was a little annoyed by this since the bus station was nearly ten miles away. But the clerk assured her that the bus station was open twenty-four hours a day and that there was someone on duty at the shipping desk around the clock. We could pick the package up at any time.

So after supper we drove to the bus station. We went in to see the clerk. He confirmed that we had a package. And then he said to my mother, “You can pull your car around into the loading bay.” My mother said, “What for?” He said, “The package is too large to hand over the counter.” My mother said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right package?”

This irritated the clerk and he learned over the counter and addressed my brother and me and said, “Are you guys Lee and Todd Smith?” We nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Then this package is for you. I’ll meet you around back.” We drove us around to the loading bay, and the shipping clerk came to our car with a hand truck carrying a heavily reinforced cardboard box, large enough to hold a dishwasher or small refrigerator.

He said, “This barely makes it inside the maximum freight dimensions and weight restrictions,” as he hoisted the box into our trunk and went to get some twine to tie the trunk lid closed. My brother and I were giddy with anticipation on the drive home, wondering what the box contained. Our mother was not in such a good humor. She knew her ex-mother-in-law well and was suspicious of the box.

When we got home, we had to go inside and get our stepfather – the box was too heavy for us to get out of the trunk. He grunted and complained as he set the box down in the living room, and said, “What the hell did she send, a jeweler’s safe?” My brother and I tore into the box, and the smell of our granny’s house wafted into the air: a combination of fried meat, grease, furniture polish, and cigarette smoke.

There beneath wadded newspaper and excelsior was our southern Christmas. There were presents wrapped in colorful paper and bows to go under the Christmas tree. Neatly folded in brown paper was a new set of pajamas for both of us. There were also two five-count packs of Fruit of the Loom underwear in the appropriate sizes for us both. There was a countless number of decorative tins and repurposed Cool Whip containers.

We opened them to find mounds of homemade Christmas treats: Divinity. Fudge. Boiled chocolate cookies. Parched peanuts. A massive container of “nuts and bolts,” which is what southerners call homemade Chex Party Mix, but to which no prepackaged Chex Party Mix will ever compare.

A whole fruitcake. A chocolate pound cake. She even included our traditional stocking stuffers of candy bars, chewing gum, citrus fruits, and pecans and walnuts in the shell. The box was as bottomless as Mary Poppins’s satchel. As every sugary confection came out of the box, my brother and I shrieked with delight and our mother moaned in defeat.

Mother tried a last-ditch effort to hide all the confections and dole them out a few at a time, but each evening when our stepfather would come home, he would begin to search for them and our mother’s scheme would be thwarted. Eventually she just gave up and just left it all out on the kitchen counter.

Each Christmas that we spent in California, Greyhound would call and say that our package had arrived. Over the years many treasures arrived in the box: hand-crocheted afghans, an heirloom family quilt, homemade Christmas decorations. A check to help with the purchase of my first car. For me it was always the best part of Christmas. Even after I moved out of the house, the box continued to arrive. My friends and roommates at college were always astounded and delighted by the contents of the box.

My grandmother was able to package and ship magic and love. Granny is long gone and missed more each year. Since her death I have discovered in conversations with my cousins that Granny came to the rescue of all of her grandchildren at one time or another, softening what would have been hard and harmful emotional landings. She did it in such a way that we each thought we were her favorite. Granny had endured a sad and difficult childhood with a mother who suffered from mental illness. She understood the importance of a child having an ally when a parent fails them.

Each year, a few days after Thanksgiving, I hang Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on my front door to announce the arrival of holiday guests. I have mastered many of her recipes, and last year finally managed a very respectable batch of divinity. When the Christmas season arrives, I lovingly remember Granny and cherish that the magic and resilience she gave me.

And during the holiday season, when I see a Greyhound bus on the highway, I think to myself, in the belly of that machine may travel some child’s Christmas.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

Learn more about the coaching process or
contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates!

Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved