I believe stories are life. They are legacy and connection and testimony. Almost everything meaningful involves the telling of a story – marriage, childhood, good books, Springsteen songs.
I learned the importance of stories early, from my grandmother. When I was very small, they were my way of connecting with her and with the younger version of my mother they revealed to me. I begged, “Nanny, tell me the story about….” The time mama fell on a broken Coke bottle . . . . The time Aunt Becky ate a bottle of aspirin and got her stomach pumped . . . . The time mama got lost from you in the grocery store and walked all the way home by herself, and you found her sitting on the front step when a stranger drove you home. . . .
New love is built on sharing stories, crafting them so as to leave out things that incriminate, fold in things that endear. We stay up late, talking over coffee or the phone, learning one another’s stories, retelling them to our friends. Old love is rooted in stories – the laughter and inside jokes, the language you only speak together. The saddest part of growing old is losing our stories, forgetting names, dates, even people we love most. In losing our stories, we lose ourselves.
Stories help us understand ourselves, forge bonds with others. Our sense of self is first shaped by others’ stories about us. I know I was a faller from an early age, because my mother told me so. (I fall easily to this day.) I know I walked early, spoke early, read early – it says so in the earliest recorded story of my life: the one my mother etched into my baby book.
It may be the stories we tell ourselves that shape us most. They’re made of the tiniest details, and their meaning changes, depending on the details we choose to share. My PhD, for instance, tells a version of my story, but it’s a story that means something quite different if I tell you my daddy quit the eighth grade (twice), that my mama was 16 when she had me, that my grandmother was a sharecropper in the deep south in the 1930s and 40s.
My grandmother died in 2006, after a long story of her own, involving lung disease and spousal abandonment and single motherhood and devotion to family. She did live long enough to see my niece, her first great-grand-child enter the world, long enough to hold her – but not long enough for my niece to ask, in her own voice, “Nanny, tell me the story about….”
But those stories are my stories, too, and my niece has me to tell them. She’ll know my grandmother, catch a glimpse of her face, hear an echo of her voice, as I try to tell the stories exactly as she did.
I believe that stories are life.
So long as I tell my grandmother’s stories, she lives on…..
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