One of my earliest memories: naptime, I’m lying in bed with my mother, my two younger sisters and our baby brother. Mom’s reading Sleeping Beauty. And I’m caught in the story. But it’s not only the story. It’s the book, the smell of the paper, the gorgeously rendered scenes, the princess and the floating fairies drawn in muted pastel colors. It’s the quiet room and the dim light. It’s her rhythm and cadence, the love in my mother’s voice.
My mother read to us every day. I loved simple picture books like Dinky Donkey or The Saggy, Baggy Elephant, but it was the fairytales, stories by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, that transported me. As my mom read, an imaginary door opened to an enchanted parallel universe and I became the characters, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. The Little Match Girl on the winter street, looking in the window at the holiday feast, the blazing fire, the table laden with food, lighting matches to warm my frozen fingers.
Around age five, I began to tell my own stories. I’d spend hours alone in my sunny attic bedroom. The sounds of summer drifted in through the open window, the kids playing hide and seek, laughing, calling each other. Stickball – the crack of a baseball bat, squealing, the kids cheering the runner around the bases. I would be sprawled on the floor, drawing outfits for my paper dolls, creating characters, giving them names, and telling their stories.
As soon as I could read, I immersed myself in books. I read any and everything-fairytales, King Arthur. In church I read and reread the Gospel passages, fascinated by the gritty details of the stories. The stories spoke to me; they felt immediate and real. This love of reading – love of stories – cultivated by my mother, stayed with me. Stories shaped my perceptions and provided a framework for comprehending the terrifying mysteries of life.
Viewed from a distance, in perspective, the major stories of my life have a beginning, a middle, and an end. My most important stories conclude with an epiphany, growth, new understanding. A transcendent arch connects these everyday stories and helps me to make sense of life. An end – a goal, an outcome to strive for – gives our lives value and meaning.
In the midst of a story, I’m often confused. I’m not sure where I’m headed or why. A job change, a move, a difficult project – these challenges weigh on and confound me. The same is true of the stories I write. Drafting a story or novel, I feel lost and confused. The parts feel unrelated, discrete. A character says or does something and I wonder, why? In the midst of a project, frustrated, unsettled, I’m tempted to quit. Trusting the story will end, stories are – life is – more than a succession of irrelevant, disconnected events, I push on.
All at once, the story takes shape. Suddenly, I see the connections, the relationships among the various parts. In real life, these aha moments are few – we rarely experience or recognize these precious gifts as they unfold – but when they do occur, in that moment of wonder, I know that, whatever changes must be made, I can see my way through to the end.
As I grow older, the stories I listened to as a child take new meaning. Stories give me joy and stories comfort and nourish me. At night, stories lull me to sleep. Telling stories has become my life’s work. I tell stories in the hope of reaching and giving to others. Always, in all my stories, I hear the glorious echo, the rise and fall of my mother’s tender, loving voice.