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When my daughter, Jessie, was three she was terrified of tow trucks.  That was my fault.  I’d say, “C’mon, c’mon, we have to hurry, the tow truck’s gonna get our car.”  She’d run ahead of me and reach up to grab the door handle, protecting the car from marauding tow trucks. 

“As long as I’m here, no tow truck will take our car,” she seemed to say. 

Imagine her delight when she spied a tow truck towing another tow truck.  It felt like vindication to her.

I told that story for years until it became part of Jessie’s legend. She grew up and told it to her daughter Molly.  Molly loved it so much she begged to hear it over and over, then she told it to her friend, Flynn, as if she’d seen it with her own eyes.  Then Flynn told the story as if he’d been there.  Now it’s legend and I’m sure one day Flynn’s grandson will say to his grandchildren, “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw a tow truck towing another tow truck?”  A story becomes a legend.

 

“I just re-read The Fire Next Time,” I told Jessie. “James Baldwin.  What a beautiful writer he was.”

“I know,” she said.  “I’ve read everything he wrote.  Plus, he said I was a cute baby.”

“Oh, I think that’s just one of your father’s stories,” I said.

She said to me, without anger, “Why would you take that away from me?”

Why indeed? I could have bitten my tongue. 

“You know, now that I think of it,” I said, “James Baldwin did live on Horatio Street when we did, and I often saw him walking by.  I’m sure he looked into your stroller and of course he would have said you were a beautiful baby.”  

I have since checked with Arthur, who was there.  He said, “Yes, it happened.  I wouldn’t make that up.”  So it’s true, and it’s Jessie’s story, her legend.

 

My mother was born on Long Island in May 1927, the week that Charles Lindbergh took off from nearby Roosevelt Field to make his historic flight across the Atlantic.  My grandfather liked to say that as he drove his wife and new baby home from the hospital home he looked up, saw the plane, waved and said, “Good Luck, Lindy!”

Is that a true story?   It’s a good one, full of hope for the future, the beginning of a heroic journey and a brand new life.  Is craft involved?  Did my grandfather conflate two separate events to make a compelling narrative?  He wasn’t writing a newspaper account, he was creating a family myth.  I believe in the absolute value of verifiable facts but I also believe in the value of a good story. I’m sorry he’s not here for me to ask.

  Our stories make us who we are and they are ours to tell. Sometimes they’re absolutely true in the verifiable, fact-checking sense.  And sometimes they’re true in the sense of legend and myth. 

My father was a storyteller who often repeated himself and we teased him for it. One Christmas as we drove away from his house my son Sam, age ten, said, 

‘I don’t know why you give PopPop such a hard time.  I think his stories are great and I love them every time.”

Oft-repeated, well-loved stories make up our family lore.  When they move into the next generation they bring back lost loved ones.  Sam reminded us to be grateful for them.

Will you tell me your story?

In August it will be ten years since my mother died and I think of her everyday. In Maurice Sendak’s obit this week he was quoted as saying; “ the ones we love die and leave us and we love them more.” Thank you again, Mr. Sendak.

In August it will be ten years since my mother died and I think of her everyday. In Maurice Sendak’s obit this week he was quoted as saying; “ the ones we love die and leave us and we love them more.” Thank you again, Mr. Sendak.
Shortly after Mom’s death Alan, Rob and I were staying at her house, preparing it for sale, and Mom came to me in a dream. She told me we were doing a good job and then I asked her what it was like being dead.
“It’s OK,” she said, “but it’s a little boring.”
I can believe that. She was never happier than when she had a project. It was not uncommon for us to come home from school and find that she had painted the living room, or wallpapered the kitchen ceiling. One Christmas Eve she said “We should invite Santa!” It was too late for that year but December 26 she asked a friend in the textile business for some red velvet--actually, yards and yards of red velvet-- and white fake fur and by January 26 there was a full Santa suit hanging in the back of a closet. She never mentioned it until the next Christmas Eve and for years after that Santa took time out from his busy schedule to drop in on our Christmas Eve party.
She never made a big deal of things. Once when I was still little enough for her to hold me in her arms we were playing in the surf and a huge wave came out of nowhere and knocked her down. Now, some mothers might have made a drama out of that- “we almost drowned!!!” my mom? Nah. She held me tight and when we came up again she said, “Phew, that was fun.” And I have always loved the surf.
A pretty woman, she didn’t fuss over herself--a flick of the comb and a dash of lipstick and she was good to go. She always looked great and you never caught her looking at herself in the mirror. Her friend, Norma told me that Mom encouraged her to buy an emerald green dress that she still wears and loves and I can totally believe that. Mom loved bright colors; she always dressed me in red and I can still hear when I’m shopping--pick a color that makes you happy to look at it.
A strict disciplinarian , she was furious when Sally Hubbard and I broke Dad’s bed by jumping on it but when I made such a mean crack to Bobby Dannenfelser after her father died that the whole neighborhood wanted to lynch me and everyone’s mother said I should be severely punished, Mom said, “I think you feel really bad about what you said. That’s punishment enough.”
Alan used to get into fights and come home with his clothes wrecked. He wasn’t a particularly belligerent kid, just a boy. Mom said, “If you come home with your clothes wrecked one more time, there will be severe consequences.” Naturally it wasn’t long before he came home with clear signs that he’d been fighting, and he took his punishment without a word. But then Mrs. DeArmond called in tears to thank Alan. Mark DeArmond, Alan’s classmate, had cerebral palsy and was a target for bullies. Alan had come upon some boys beating up Mark and he said, “OK, pick on someone who can fight back."

“Oh, Alan, I’m so proud of you!”
So, fighting is very bad unless it’s for a good cause and you have to decide that for yourself.

LIke many people of strong character Mom held fast to her convictions. It isn’t easy growing up with One Who Knows All There Is To Know. She was fond of saying of certain others “Seldom troubled with the thought that he might be wrong” I never got the chance (or the nerve) to look her in the eye and say,”You know, Mom, there’s a lot of that going around.” But there’s always an upside.
When I had to face a firing squad of sorts my friend Frank said, “Whatever you do, Barbara, don’t let them see you cry. Carry your mother in there with you and let her stiffen your spine and your upper lip.” I can’t count the times she did just that for me.
Our family has had some terrible days. When a young person dies before what we think is his time there is very little comfort but somehow you have to carry on. You have to eat and sleep and keep moving; you have to get through the days until time can begin to heal your wounds. You also have to keep yourself open to the possibility of fun and even joy.
On one of our worst days, Mom called all her grandchildren together and said; “Come on everybody, I’m going to teach you how to do the twist.”
She was an imperfect and wonderful mother and I miss her every day. I’m grateful for everything she gave me, and especially that every gift from her came wrapped in brilliant colors.

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