“Don’t tell stories.” How many times did my mother say those words to me? What she meant was “Tell the truth.” My mother had no time for fantasy or tolerance for lies. Life was black and white for Phyllis Snobelen. She was too busy and practical to wade through the complications of nuance.
There were hard truths in our family that were determined by our religious beliefs that provided her solid ground from which she could pronounce what was right and what was wrong.
Right here I’m stuck. Where do I go with this? Many of you are probably saying, “But if you were Christian isn’t your entire religion based on stories?”
Exactly. And the Bible provides some of the most popular stories in the western world. Stories from which my mother extracted her black and white, but that’s for another discussion at another time time. And then there’s Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
Not to diminish the importance of the stories I was raised with but we’ve come a long way since the late 50s and 60s when I was a child. Stories are not the opposite of truth. Stories are not “just” stories. They are the way humans have communicated with each other since we had language.
I’m thankful my mother lived long enough to hear me tell stories and to read some of the stories I had written. While she liked them she could never truly understand the point of it. From her perspective if a story wasn’t God’s story then it was of hugely diminished importance.
But when dementia began blurring the hard lines she had drawn in her life I spent hours with my mother telling her stories. Simple stories about buying a pair of boots or visiting an old friend kept her entertained. She told me stories that were a collage of her childhood and my childhood mixed with, perhaps, utter fantasy. She kept me entertained.
As her dementia progressed she struggled to remember even her closest friends. When a very dear family acquaintance died she had no recollection of him at all. It wasn’t until I recreated into a story something she had experienced dozens of times that she connected.
“Remember at the church on Sunday nights, Mom,” I said. “George (name change) the door man, with his long, dour face, paced across the back of the hall. He watched the second hand of the clock tick until it reached the 12 at 7:30…precisely 7:30. Then he shut the doors and sat down ready for the meeting to begin. Remember wondering why he never smiled?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “But he had a lovely wife who had a beautiful big smile for everyone.”
Stories didn’t just entertain my mother, they helped her connect to me, to her life and to the world. Stories aren’t just stories, they communicate the essence of what it means to be human.