Nothing gets my six-year-old daughter to sit still and listen like a story from my childhood adventures. “Mom, tell me a story from when you were little,” she begs before lights out at bedtime. Thankfully, at this time in her life my stories don’t have to be anecdotal: just fun, like the one about the time some neighborhood kids and I discovered, and pulled, a fat, black and white domestic rabbit out of some bushes by its ears. She is enthralled by the mystery of how it got there, just as I was when it happened. There’s no moral to it, just the rich, juicy detail that paints my experience at her age, a slice of my life. She hangs on every word.
For most of my adult life I have been coaxing my grandmother to tell me about her life. Now 89, she has moderate-stage Alzheimer’s Disease, and her memory for every-day, every-minute things wanes. But that’s no excuse for having nothing to share about the life she has lived. She has always been coy and stingy when talking about her past. I’ve had to learn the details through bits of facts from my parents, aunts and cousins, and use my imagination to piece together her stories – the loss of her mother at childbirth; the dressmaker stepmother who laid beautiful, handmade gowns at her feet; the taboo existence of growing up illegitimate; the Olympic tryouts thwarted by shame; the ten-year battle to wrestle her children from the custody of her controlling ex-inlaws. Hers are stories of pain, loss, shame.
Now in her 60’s my mother has found her voice. She became a writer and illustrator of books with personalized stories for her grandchildren and children. Her stories are allegorical and transforming, representing the control over the happiness of her loved ones that eludes them in real life: a shy, dependent kitten weathers a terrible storm to become a brave, independent cat; a sad, lonely boy is befriended by a spunky, assertive starfish; a mother’s beloved childhood teddybear relives moments of warmth and love in the arms of her infant son.
In Mom’s fictional stories I see hope, love, empathy, and the kind of unconditional support for her children that I know, from the stories of her life that she has told me, that she seldom received from her mother. Unwittingly, she paints some detail of herself into every one of her imaginative stories – and I relish these discoveries more than the stories themselves.
I believe that it is so important to tell your life stories to your children. However happy or sad, silly, shameful, or sublime, each one serves as an example of what it means to be human, what it means to be you. I believe that your stories are your legacy. They help your children navigate their lives. So make them rich and full of the detail of you.
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