My mother, the storyteller
Judaism is rooted in our people’s ability to tell a good story. From the Talmud to Yiddish folklore to Holocaust memoirs, the Jewish tradition and culture has survived because we do not hide our history. We share it and strive to learn from it and keep it alive through the generations.
My mother was a writer. But I also like to think of my mother as a storyteller in this Jewish tradition. She was not the gregarious center of attention, a joke teller or the life of the party. But people were drawn to her in a very special way, and would tell her things that I don’t think they would ordinarily share. She observed everything, picked up on minutia. As a kid riding the train into the city with my mom, we would look at our fellow passengers and try to figure out where they were headed, creating elaborate life stories for them. At my request, she would often tell me tales from her own life, stories from the “olden times.” I loved to lie in bed next to my mother as she told me about her adventures with her brother as a kid growing up in Yonkers or her long walks in the snow to her job at a diner in an Upstate New York farm town. I learned the names of her childhood friends, ex-boyfriends, old teachers, former colleagues, as if they were characters in a favorite book.
I have piles of my mother’s old journals and notebooks from creative writing classes, filled with those memories and fiction and poetry and a lot in between. Stories about her parents, my father, my sister and me, everyone given aliases, the details tweaked, personalities blended and shifted and turned into something entirely new. My mother had the slightly morbid habit of reading the obituaries section of the local paper every day, on the look-out for interesting journeys and funny names that she could use in her writing. Occasionally I’ll come across a character name in her notebooks and recognize it as one of those obit finds.
She wrote less in the last six years of her life. Cancer and chemo zapped her energy, and she had to ration what little she had left for spending time with those she loved or just doing the nitty gritty life stuff that doesn’t stop when you’re sick. About one year after she was diagnosed, she wrote a pretty great essay about her weekly treatments at the oncology office, and a friend from temple with some connections tried to get it into The New York Times Magazine. They rejected it: not funny enough. Cancer’s hard to take without a few jokes thrown in.
I miss my mom. I often feel like I’m stumbling through my twenties, trying to figure out my career and love and life without the guidance of the person who knew me best. So I find myself thinking about her stories often. They’re guideposts to me, bits of posthumous advice. That was probably not her intention 20 years ago, racking her brain for another story to tell her endlessly curious little girl. But I am so glad that she did. Like so many before her, she shared her history with me. And I will learn from it, and try to grow from it, and hopefully share it someday, too.