The Stories We Tell

What do I want from a writer? A good story, of course, but what I want most is a connection. I think of the books I treasure, and looking at them from “the elements of story” point of view, I realize I am always hooked by voice. Someone is telling a story, and if I can hear that voice, I’m immediately pulled in and want to know more. I’m talking about Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Shirley Jackson in “Life Among the Savages,” Laurie Colwin in “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking,” or Nora Ephron in most anything she wrote.

What makes me relate to that voice and sparks the connection is not easily defined, but I know that if I met any one of these women (fictional or not), I would want to sit down with her, over a cup of coffee, and listen to what she had to say. As an added bonus, if I could go back in time and meet Laurie Colwin before she died, she would offer me a slice of gingerbread and advice on how to answer the dinner question without stress.

Lately I have been reading a lot of essays, because I enjoy them, and also because I want to write better essays. This desire led to my discovery of “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” by Ann Patchett, a collection of essays she wrote over a span of 16 years. What a wonderful voice she has, and how it pulled me in.

The essay that touched me most was Love Sustained, in which Patchett writes of her close relationship with her grandmother and of the difficulties her family experienced as her grandmother became ill and began a slow slide toward physical and mental incapacitation and death.

“People always went out of their way to tell me how lucky I was for being able to spend so much time with my grandmother,” Patchett says, and I think how I wish I could say the same about my relationship with my grandmother.

Mom-Mom was a fixture in our lives, arriving for dinner every Sunday, spending holidays and family vacations with us. I got a kiss and a hello when she arrived, but I don’t remember ever having a discussion with her.

I don’t think she read books, listened to music, or had any interest in art, which is odd as her son, my father, was an artist. She didn’t seem to have any hobbies or passions. She told stories, the same stories every time I saw her, but she didn’t ask questions of me or listen to anything I had to say. Probably, I didn’t have much to say to her. She cooked me chocolate pudding, and gave me money to buy candy at the corner store, but I never knew who she was, and she didn’t know who I was either.

Some of this is my fault, but I plead youth as my excuse. As Patchett notes in the title essay of the book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, “Children have a real failure of the imagination when it comes to thinking of the adults in their lives as having done anything of interest, anything at all, in the time known as before.”

If only I had listened to Mom-Mom’s familiar stories, the ones that made me zone out, about the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed so many of her relatives and orphaned her cousins. If only I had asked questions, I would’ve learned so much about her and, maybe, we would’ve had a closer relationship.

It’s ironic that as an adult I’ve always been interested in the Great Influenza Pandemic. I’m sure whispers of Mom-Mom’s stories lingered in the back of my mind and triggered that interest.

My grandmother died at 92 and had not been herself for years before that. She forgot who people were — once she called me by my sister’s name, another time by her daughter’s name. I was married by then, working, raising two children, and rarely made the time to see her. At the end of her life, she was, as Patchett wrote of her grandmother, “held to life by about three silk threads.”

I didn’t grieve when Mom-Mom died, and while I was reading Patchett’s essay about her love for her grandmother, I remembered how I stood in the pouring rain during my grandmother’s funeral, wishing that the service would end so I could find shelter in my car. The memory of this filled me with sorrow and shame.

All of this brings me to why I think we tell our stories and why stories, family stories in particular, are so important.

When my grandmother started to laugh and said, while waving a Thanksgiving turkey leg in the air, “I don’t have half the appetite I used to. Let me tell you, I could eat when I was younger, could just eat. Not that we had much food then. Times were hard and … did I ever tell you that my cousins lived with us after their parents died? Oh so many people died from the Great Influenza. It was just terrible …” — when she was telling me that story, she was saying, “This is who I am. This event shaped me, and this experience, and this. Listen to my stories, and you will know who I am.”

I am ready now to hear the stories of my family members, but in some cases it is too late. To the family members who are here with me, I say: “Tell me your stories.”

I will listen, and their voices will pull me in, will make me want to ask questions. And I will tell my own stories, writing them here even if no one asks, because they are inside of me, begging to come out.

Listen to my voice, I will say. Sit down. Grab a cup of coffee.  I have a story to tell you.

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