A Story Teller’s Story, A Poet’s Beginnings
Somewhere in my files is an abandoned poem called “The Three Stories My Mother Told Me about Herself.” My mother not being a storyteller by nature, nor one given to confidences, these were cautionary tales—lessons learned, now presented for my benefit. The first, on the wisdom of doing what you are told, was about the time she was supposed to wait after the picture show for her father to come walk her the three or four miles back to their rural southern Ohio home, because there were gypsies camped in the woods. But my mother, displaying a disobedience, or, at the very least, a daring I never witnessed in her as an adult, struck out boldly on her own. Her father, on his way to meet her, saw his daughter coming, hid in the trees and then jumped out to frighten her—to startle her, she said, back into her good common sense.
The second story, on being grateful for what you have, concerned the December in the late 1930s when my mother and her six siblings got off the school bus to find that their farmhouse had burned to the ground. My grandmother stood there by the smoldering foundation holding the only things she managed to grab as she ran out—the family Bible and two dresses on hangers. Everything else was lost, including their savings; in those early post-Depression years, my grandfather did not believe in banks. The neighboring families took them in by twos and threes that winter and (she always presented this as a fitting conclusion) gave them gifts of new Christmas ornaments.
The third wasn’t really a story but, rather, ingredients toward one, which I combined and recombined—a collection of mementos from my mother’s high school years. Her senior yearbook, with its twenty graduates—all those smooth, expectant faces gazing out and up toward a future that even in my childhood, of course, had long since settled into circumscribed lives centered around coal mines and factories. My mother’s radiant photograph captioned in iambic tetrameter: “She leaves a string of broken hearts.” And all the little mementos and keepsakes she kept in a small cedar jewelry box, its neat brass clasp opening with a whiff of past-preserved: twin black Scottie magnets which seemed ever to repel each other, a broken gold watch whose pinching wristband seemed itself a reproach to my encroachment.
What I was drawn to in these stories were all the wrong things. The dark pressured suspense of gypsies in the woods, molten mounds of gold and silver in the snow and charred timbers. The perplexing symbols of those two dresses or Christmas ornaments decorating loss (for years I rehearsed what I’d rescue if our house caught on fire). Souvenirs as synecdoche. Behind it all, the reminder of the utter unknowability of someone I was with every day, the vastness of the absences in a family’s past. The primary lesson, I suppose, was what reticence can teach, or at least coax forth—how we construct another’s life to the extent we can from remnants and fragments, much as I used to try to piece into a whole understanding my mother’s countless letter drafts to her own mother from the scraps in her wastebasket, revised until she’d written out anything that might cause any worry, revised until they said almost nothing at all. Torn in half, torn in half again. We are all fine here, she’d write in her tidy run-ons, the weather is unusually warm. Or sometimes just her full name, written over and over down the page. If, as Eudora Welty learned in her own childhood, one secret is often offered up in place of another, in my own family—which was loving and secure but also securely contained, each of us keeping our own counsel—I was another degree removed from those secrets, trying to assemble a story from whatever images and objects were offered or found or forgotten.
Read this essay in its entirety here: https://fictionwritersreview.com/essay/a-story-tellers-story-a-poets-beginnings/