A Folktale from Russia. Adapted by Elisa Pearmain. Once upon a time there lived a tailor’s son named Joseph. He worked beside his father in his little shop cutting and stitching clothing for the wealthy folks in town. As he grew older, Joseph began to dream of making something special for himself to wear. He pictured a warm coat made of colorful fabric. For many years he saved the few coins that he got from helping his father. Finally he had enough to buy the cloth that he wanted.
Joseph went to the market and bought the piece of cloth he had been dreaming of. It was a warm gray with bits of gold and silver and even a little crimson here and there. That night while his father was sleeping, Joseph went to the shop. He laid out the pieces of fabric and made a careful plan. He measured, then he cut and he stitched. After several nights of working, the young man had made himself a fine coat. When the tailor saw the work his son had done, he felt proud. “You are a tailor now in your own right,” he said. “You have done fine work.” Joseph loved his coat. It was warm and colorful and everyone looked at it. He wore it everywhere, and the seasons passed.
One afternoon when Joseph had been buying cloth in the market for his father, a cold rain began to fall. He saw a young woman, shivering, wearing only a thin shawl to keep her from the cold. She was about his age. Joseph took off his coat and offered to let her wear it home. Joseph walked with her. They came to know one another, and within two years, Joseph and Anna were married.
Joseph made his own tailor shop in the basement of their small apartment in their town. He continued to wear his coat. He wore it; he wore it; until he had worn it out. One day, he held his coat up, turning it round, and spoke to Anna in a sad voice, “This old coat has meant so much to me. It was my first dream come true. It made my father proud, and it helped me to meet you. Now there is nothing left. Nothing.”
But then he laughed out loud, “There is something left. Just enough.” Instead of throwing the coat in the rag bin, he took it to his workbench and began to measure, and to cut and stitch. By morning, he had made a jacket.
He loved the jacket. He wore it everywhere. Soon his wife gave birth to twin girls. When they were a year old, he looked outside one night and saw the first snowflakes falling. “Come on girls,” he said, picking them up and tucking one into each side of his jacket and buttoning them in. “We will go taste the first snowflakes of winter.” The girls laughed in amazement as the big flakes melted on their noses and tongues. Joseph danced round and round holding his two darlings under his warm jacket.
He wore the jacket for years. He wore it and wore it, until one day Anna remarked that it was all worn out. He held the jacket up. “Old jacket, you’ve meant so much to me. I’ll never forget how I danced with the twins in the first snow. But there is nothing left. Nothing.”
But again he stopped, “There is just enough here. Just enough.” And instead of throwing the jacket into the rag bin, he went to his workbench and began to measure, and to cut, and to stitch. In the morning he had made a cap. It was a lovely cap with a small brim and a lining to keep his head warm in winter.
He loved the cap. He wore it everywhere. When his girls were thirteen years old, there was a famine in the land. The crops were poor. Even the rich were not buying new clothes. The tailor’s family had very little to eat, mostly potatoes, cabbage, or a carrot from Anna’s garden, but never anything sweet.
One day they went into the forest at the edge of the town to collect firewood. All of a sudden Anna began shouting, “Berries, come see all of the berries!” The family stuffed their faces with berries, but there were still more. “If only we had something to carry them in, I would make a pie,” Anna said.
What did they have to carry them in? Joseph’s cap! The cap was filled to brimming with beautiful black berries. Their purple juice left a permanent stain, but the taste of berry pie after so much hunger was worth it.
Joseph continued to wear his hat for years, until one day, he looked at it, and he realized it was all worn out. He held the cap, turning it round, “Old cap, you’ve meant so much to me, but now there really is nothing left. Nothing.” Then he laughed. “There’s enough here. Just enough.” Instead of throwing the cap away, he went to his workbench and cut and stitched, until he had made a bow tie.
He wore the bow tie everywhere. He wore it to his daughter’s weddings and the births of his grandchildren. When his first grandson was old enough to speak he sat on Joseph’s lap and played with his bow tie. “Grand Papa you have a butterfly on your shirt,” the boy cried. From then on, every time he played with the grandchildren he would take off his bow tie and pretend that it was a butterfly.
One day when Joseph’s hair was gray, he came home from the market and took off his coat. “Where is your bow tie?” Anna asked him. He felt for it, but it was gone. “It must have fallen off.” As fast as his old legs would let him, he jumped up and retraced his steps through the market place. He went back to every shop asking at each stall. Everyone knew of his bow tie, but no one had seen it. He told Anna. “I have to find it.” It was not until late in the night that Anna was finally able to guide old Joseph home. He got into bed without his supper.
The next day he refused to get up. “What’s the use?” he said. “The cloth that I loved is gone. Now there is nothing left. Nothing. I have been through so much with that cloth, I feel as if I have lost someone near and dear.”
Joseph did not hear when his wife laughed quietly. She put on her shawl and went to her daughter’s homes. “Bring your children,” she said. They all came and plopped down on the bed. ” I can’t play today,” said Joseph, “I am too sad, I have lost my bow tie. I have lost so many dear memories.”
“Tell us about the cloth, Dad,” said one of his daughters. “Your grandchildren do not know all of the stories.”
“Oh, it is too sad,” he said.
“Please Grand Papa,” the children begged.
“Alright, I will” he said slowly. He told them about making the coat, and making his father proud. He told about putting the coat over the young woman in the market and meeting his wife. He told about dancing in the snow with his two young babies. He told about the cap full of berries. As he recalled all of these memories, the tears fell slowly down his cheeks. He told about wearing the bowtie to his daughters’ weddings and the births of his grandchildren.
His eldest grandchild chimed in, “You made your bow tie into a butterfly Grand Papa. Maybe it flew away.”
Old Joseph sighed, “Yes, it seems that my beloved bow tie did fly away. And, you have helped me to see that the memories I have that are so dear to me did not fly away. There were just enough memories left to make a story. The story will never be lost if you help me keep it.” Then Joseph the Tailor hugged his family close and got out of bed. His story was passed down through many generations.
Sources: Many oral and written versions of this old Jewish folk tale exist. I first read it in Just Enough to Make a Story, by Nancy Schimmel, l972, (Berkley: Sister’s Choice Press, l986).
Sharing the Tale
I share this tale in several venues. One is in my Family Storytelling workshops. When I share the story with family groups, we go on to share stories that are meaningful to us related to objects, and then expanded to include a number of other themes, including whatever a person wishes to share.
I also share it in the inpatient psychiatric and addictions unit where I work, particularly around holiday times when people are feeling the loss of loved ones who have passed on, and of relationships that have changed. After telling the story in the therapeutic setting, I ask people to talk about how the story made them feel. Then if they have not already told me so, I ask if it reminded them of a loss that they had experienced. Then I talk about losses and how they particularly affect us at the holiday time, and why, and ask each person to share how this is for them, and what things they do to manage feelings. Then I offer oral and written suggestions (see the list below) for managing loss at holiday times. It is not uncommon for patients to refuse to talk about a lost loved one for fear that it would open the gates of unmanageable pain. Here is another place where a story could provide courage by example.
The tailor story also has value for people who are anticipating the anniversary of the loss of a loved one. Many of our patients come into the hospital because they do not think that they can manage the flood of feelings and anxiety that happens as an anniversary approaches. Sometimes it seems that their ability to hold their feelings of loss changes little from year to year. This is partly because their grief is complicated by trauma and mental illness, and partly because they have not been able to process their grief. Stories can serve as a coping and processing tool.
Why is the holiday time the source of so much grief? In an email to the author, Storyteller Karen Chace wrote that, “It takes the turn of a year, where we travel through each of the seasons with the attendant holidays, before we feel as if we’re truly beginning to heal through the grieving.” There are certain times of year when we are even more aware than usual of loved ones who are no longer with us. We reflect on what life was like when they were with us, and become even more aware of their absence. These times of heightened awareness can occur around actual holidays or changes in season or during events special only to a family, such as birthdays, and anniversaries.
Most people like to follow traditions at holiday time. Traditions have often come down through time, through the generations; they are often tied to satisfying, vivifying religious beliefs; and they are also times when people come together and are reminded that they belong to a group. Tradition usually means doing things with certain people year after year. Human beings take comfort in repeating traditions. They give life order and enhance meaning. When people die or move or divorce, traditions change, and there is an empty space. The effect of this can be that family cohesion is lost. Different people play different roles in traditions and rituals. When a person is gone, changes result. Starting over or continuing requires new leadership and hard work. On the other hand, if traditions are lost, there is a sense of emptiness and disconnection, which can bring on a depression or manic episode.
Storyteller Mary Clarke has suggested that there are times when grieving people decide that they need to stop celebrating a holiday after a loss, and that while it is painful for others, it is best to accept the mourners’ feelings and be supportive of them. This creates a double loss for those around them. But she also mentioned that this can be the start of new traditions that have deeper meaning for those who practice them.
Anticipating the holiday is often harder than the event itself. Things won’t be the same, and we know it. We may feel dread or expect to be overwhelmed by grief. Often we are afraid that we will ruin the holiday for others because we aren’t able to be cheerful. Many people feel ashamed or angry that they cannot feel the “holiday spirit,” that our culture pushes on us from every angle. There are ways of planning to manage our grief that can help.
What is my goal when working with someone who is grieving? First of all, when working with those who are grieving, we are not seeking to take away their grief. I don’t think this would feel right even if it could be done. Grief itself is a connection. What we are doing is helping people to integrate this loss into who they are and how they understand life, and to make a new relationship with the deceased loved one or situation that is gone. We can help them to connect to and develop new parts of themselves and to find new sources of companionship.
How can a story like this one help to accomplish this goal?
1) It helps us to keep or forge a new relationship with the lost loved one through re-collecting (collecting again) our shared stories. It reminds us that we have not lost everything. As long as we have memories, and people to share them with, we have not lost the person completely. We have the person in a different form. When we use our imagination through story telling, we can experience images and emotions that provide a strong experience of connection. As we grow older, more and more of the people who made our lives what they were will live on in our memories.
2) Stories connect us to others. As we take part in a story sharing, we realize that other people’s stories are our stories too, and that they connect us to people whose lives shaped our life through the generations. With someone to hear our stories, we are not alone, and our pain is not borne alone.
3) Stories can model the experience of grief, normalizing it. Joseph cannot accept his loss initially. He bargains. Finally he accepts that his tie is really gone. He takes to his bed. He suffers the deep mental and physical depression of grief. He loses hope and purpose. Then with help of family members, he begins to tell the story, re-making his relationship to the lost object, and finding that it still lives within him. It becomes more of a spiritual relationship as he acknowledges that the physical part of the tie has flown away, but not the memories of the joy it brought him.
This modeling through story can help those who have not yet experienced a deep loss to try on the feelings, and to move through them. It can be a model for them to normalize their own experience in the future. By focusing on the object in his story, we can stay objective while feeling his pain. The story can also help those who are attending to a loss by reminding them that with creativity and love there are ways to transform pain.
4) When we tell personal stories out loud, we discharge some of its danger and darkness. Visiting an experience or an emotion through story is like shining a light into a dark closet. The boogiemen are seen for what they are, and they are not as infallible as we thought. Many people suffer from difficult emotions like guilt, regret, and anger when someone dies or leaves. Keeping these feelings hidden out of shame or fear allows them to grow and fester, until they take up larger and larger spaces in our psyches. These emotions are a normal part of grieving any loss. Through telling them as part of our story we can reality check them with others, normalize them, and take away their power over us. Often we can help to facilitate this type of healing if we ask the person to tell us about the experience leading up to the death itself.
5) As listeners to someone else’s stories, we realize that we can help just by listening, and being a witness.
Coping with Loss Through the Holidays
(You could reprint this as a poster or handout).
Below I have listed some suggestions for coping with loss through the holidays. I give this list to my patients. Some of them are directly story related while some are not. I would love to hear your suggestions to add to this list. These include suggestions made by HealingStory listserve members and others. Thanks so much.
The holiday season is upon us once again. If we are experiencing challenges or losses in our lives, this can be an especially difficult time. Here are some ideas for managing stress and practicing self-care during the holiday season.
This is a very important time to stay healthy. Get plenty of rest, eat well, sleep well, and take your medications. Avoid alcohol and drugs, or keep them to a minimum. You’ll feel better. Grief and healing require a great deal of physical and psychic energy. Take care of yourself. Make a plan for what you will do on the actual holidays. Include activities that are pleasurable and relaxing, such as:
Finding and playing music that you love.
Renting a stack of funny and engaging videos.
Going for a walk out of doors. Taking a bath. Doing yoga.
Dancing, painting, writing poetry, or reading a favorite story or book.
Make sure that you are with people with whom you can be yourself and tell the stories that you need to tell. You may need to cry, and it must be ok to do so. Discuss your fears and disappointments related to the holidays with your therapist or a trusted friend. Gather support around you. Many people experience loss and disappointment at the holiday time when relatives and friends do not choose to join with them, or when traditions are broken.
Take time to remember loved ones who have died by creating new rituals, including storytelling rituals:
1) Ask each person to bring and share a favorite memory about a person.
2) Hang a stocking or wrap a box for the person who is no longer there and have each person put something into it, such as a favorite memory, a prayer, or poem.
3) Make a place for that person at the table and talk about what they used to bring to, or loved about, that holiday. Or make a place card for them and put it by their picture nearby the table or on the table.
4) Let any children involved decide on creative ways that they want to include the lost loved one in a holiday. Children often know what they need to satisfy their needs. One child for instance had family members write letters to a Grandmother who had recently died, and then they instructed each person to burn them in the fireplace so they would reach her in heaven.
5) Look at pictures of the loved one and let them lead into stories.
6) Assemble a memory book relating to the loved one with your relatives and give them out as presents, or assemble them together from each person’s contribution.
7) If it is too painful for people to tell stories out loud at first, have a silent time for each person to think of their loved one. This may become a tradition!
8) Read or tell stories or poems that your loved one found especially inspiring and comforting. That way their voices will continue to contribute to your lives.
Find out what support groups meet on holidays. AA, churches, synagogues, religious organizations, and hospices often organize meetings and activities. You don’t have to be alone.
Don’t do things because you think you should. Explain to people that this year you need to take it easy and there may be some things that you just are not up to.
Delegate responsibility. Let someone else shop, cook and address those envelopes. Shop over the phone. Give people creative gifts such as a favorite poem or photograph, or a hug.
Decide to skip the holiday altogether the first year, if this is easier for you.
Explore the spiritual and or religious aspects of the holidays and let the commercial ones go this year.
Make a list every night of all the little and big things you can be grateful for that you experienced that day. Gratitude and peace will grow in your heart.
Elisa Pearmain is a professional storyteller, and the award-winning author of the book Doorways to the Soul: Fifty-two Wisdom Tales from around the World (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, l998). She also works part time as a mental health counselor. Elisa lives outside of Boston with her family and can be contacted through
or on her website which features bimonthly stories and articles related to storytelling and healing and world peace: www.wisdomtales.com.