Friday, April 19, 2013

Stories About My Mother


I know it troubles my mother that my brother and I have stories that mostly center around things that we did with Dad. I am perhaps even more guilty of this tendency to talk of Dad than my brother is because I'm more of the storyteller and seem to remember a great deal more of my childhood than does my bother. I admit that many of the stories about my parents do have to do with my father and I understand why this makes my mother wonder. Is it a sign that he is somehow more memorable than she is, or (and this is much more of a fear) that he was somehow more loved? Thinking of how it must prey on her, I feel a little guilt, but mostly I feel an empathetic pang of her panic and worry.

The thing about my father is that he doesn't always talk very much and he very rarely speaks of himself. My mother, on the other hand, talks a great deal but it is only recently that I've come to understand how little she says about herself. As a younger woman, during my childhood, she regaled anyone and everyone with stories that entertained and kept people laughing. Her letters were always magnificent and her best friend was always after her to write a book and become the next Erma Bombeck.

Perhaps because she was such a strong storyteller, very few of our stories centered on her, but I think it was something more. Most of my mother's stories showed her in a less than flattering light. It's a trick I've used for years. Tell the worst about yourself so that people will laugh at the story, at the story you have told, and not laugh at you. As my most powerful storytelling mentor, my mother taught me to tell stories in the same way, but when I told tales of her screwing up, they weren't as funny. I didn't realize that it took her making fun of herself to make the story okay. When I told it, well, it was just mean.

So I backed away from a lot of those stories and the things that I said about my mother were more vague as in, she was always waiting when I came home from school. There's no there there.

In thinking about it as I write, I'm feeling a bit of panic that I haven't stumbled across a vivid, specific story to tell. There are the usuals that I have told before. When she told me to never believe in a commercial, when I took the Lifesavers at the grocery store, when she chaperoned the trip for my fifth grade class and showed us the best stuff in all of Syracuse. But even as I panic, just naming some of those stories is enough to get me started remembering what it was like to go on trips with her, to listen to her read stories to us while Dad drove to Maine, to visit historical places and know that she knew more than I thought I would ever know about such things. I remember her doing my coloring books with me but refusing to show me how to color so that my picture looked as good as hers. She said, "you'll figure it out." She was right. I did.

Here's the thing that I most remember about my childhood and my mother from that time: my childhood was easy in most every way, especially before I turned ten and we moved to the suburbs. I was protected, fed, showered with gifts, taught, listened to, bandaged, bathed, entertained, and shown how to be a good person. My father was away at work almost all the time, so it seemed to me then and even now in memory. Mom was the one who took me to the supermarket Thursday mornings, making it my favorite day of the week. She was the one who taught me how to make lasagna even though she protested that she hated to cook. She was the one who nearly always tucked me into bed each morning and, clapping and shouting, she was the one who ripped me awake in the morning.

I remember one day in particular though that sticks with me. A Saturday morning. Dad was at work. My brother and I were watching cartoons and the TV died, shrinking to a line and then a single point of light. I couldn't believe it. My brother couldn't either. We pounded on the sides of it, but then smoke rose from the back. This was the end. We went to the kitchen to tell her. I know that she was panicked by it. We had no money for new televisions. And though my father was good at fixing many things, electronics was not something he understood.

"We'll just have to take care of that," she said. Then she told us to get dressed and go outside. "It's a beautiful day." And we did. I'm not sure what my brother thought about it, but I was completely at ease and anxious to tell my best friend about how our TV totally blew up. I wasn't worried. Mom said we'd have to take care of that and it was good enough for me.

Maybe it still is.

(By the way, if anyone in this world did, it was my mother who taught me to write on.)