I have many fond memories of my parents and grandparents, telling me a story when I was young, either to lull me off to sleep, or just to keep me entertained. A few years ago, while emceeing an event, I had the pleasure of listening to one of the most fantastic storytellers I've ever heard, Dianne Chandler.
I was so mesmerized by the story that during a recent Christmas show, I asked her to share it again. She told the story of Hoshmakaka, The Straw that Broke the Camel's Back. The story lasted about 15 minutes, and I sat in awe as I listened to every word.
I realized it wasn't the story, as much as the way it was being told. The animation in Dianne’s face, the inflection in her voice and the hours she spent memorizing the story, came through in the end result. When she paused, I could not wait for her to continue.
Dianne Chandler was born in Welland, Ontario. She grew up in Fenwick, a very small town on the Niagara escarpment. As a young girl, Dianne worked part-time picking cherries and thinning out peaches. Something I assume you do when living in the fruit belt.
Her father, a teacher, had an opportunity to head up the Science Department at Port Perry High, so the family decided to move to this neck of the woods. Dianne finished her high school education at Port Perry HS and then went to the University of Toronto, majoring in English.
Upon graduation, she got started work at the CIBC in Toronto, and was trained on computers, a relatively new concept at the time. She soon realized the job was not as challenging as she had hoped and was concerned about spending her life in a career, which could become quite boring.
She had a long conversation with her mother, during which Dianne confessed she wanted to be a teacher. Her mother, very supportive, was quite proud when Dianne graduated from Teacher’s College and was offered a position at the exclusive Browns School in Toronto.
On weekends, Dianne found herself skating at the arena, behind the CIBC in Port Perry, and one day she was asked by Bernard Chandler if he could skate with her. This led to an actual date and arrangements were made for Bernie to pick her up at her house.
“It was quite funny,” Dianne explained. “When the doorbell rang and my father opened the door, it was not Bernie who stood in the opening. He was afraid of running into Dianne’s father, his high school teacher, and had persuaded his friend to call instead.”
Dianne received a call from the principal at RH Cornish elementary school, who offered her a position teaching grade two. Although she really wanted kindergarten, she took the position and held it for five years. She then taught kindergarten for 14 years.
One summer, Dianne decided to take a cultural studies course at Trent University. By now her and Bernie were married and were building a house in Scugog. The Prof at Trent was a storyteller, and when he first relayed a tale to his class, everyone was mesmerized by the story.
Prior to the industrial revolution, a travelling storyteller would visit a rural community and all the folks from miles around would gather in one family’s small cottage. They would congregate around the fire with their babies and young children, as well as all the kin and neighbours, to relish a night of storytelling. The stories were for adults and children alike, and when the children fell asleep the stories went on, often until the light of dawn.
After that first class, Dianne had a weekend to learn a story, which she then had to tell in front of the class. “It made other people feel really good and made me feel very happy to be able to share different variations of folklore with people.” It seems she was a natural.
That entire summer was spent learning a new story every week, and when school began, she started telling stories to her kindergarten class. “It was like magic. The kids loved it,” she said, proudly.
Other teachers learned about her talent and asked her to tell stories to their grades as well. Her reputation grew, and Dianne was invited to a conference in Vineland to perform on stage, telling a story.
Every once in a while someone tells you, years later, that a certain story made such an impact on them, that it changed their lives. “I was in Fabricland in Whitby one day, some years ago now,” Dianne explained. “Buying fabric for a new storytelling outfit, and I had the pattern with me.
“It may have been a medieval costume and I had shown it to the clerk to explain what I was looking for. As the clerk was cutting the fabric she asked, ‘Are you an actress?’ I replied, ‘No. I’m a storyteller.’
The clerk stopped cutting, stood up and took a good long look at me, and she asked if I had ever told a story in Port Perry, a tale about a seal? I replied I had. She then told me she had been going through marriage problems at that time, and hearing that story changed her life.” Dianne reflected a moment.
Upon retirement, Dianne started telling stories full time. She performed at such events as the Highland Games of Durham, the Museum, bookstores as well as several venues in Toronto. She now belongs to Storytellers of Canada, as well as being an executive of Durham Region Storytellers, a group that she chaired for eight years.
“I've been fortunate to travel to many different countries, however when I tell a story it is like visiting a magical land.” On average, Dianne does 15 to 20 engagements a year, and is looking forward to the end of this pandemic, when she can once again resume her story magic.
If you find yourself unable to sleep one night and you want someone to tell you a story, give Dianne a call at 905-985-3424 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.