A Thousand and One Stories, A Million and One Words

A Thousand and One Stories, A Million and One Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

A Thousand and One Stories, A Million and One Words

That best academy, a mother’s knee.
~James Russell Lowell

My mother didn’t leave me much. She didn’t give me very much. She didn’t have time—either on Earth or in her life.

At the end of the 60s, when I was a child and my mother was a beautiful woman in the prime of her life, she and my father were caught up in what seems a staple feature of that era: They were relentlessly social.

At the height of her partying and her beauty, my mother died, very quickly, of the same kind of brain cancer that killed Senator Ted Kennedy.

I was not yet twenty and thought I felt—I still feel—that I hardly knew her.

On the night she died, I remember thinking, who will I try to impress now? Who will be proud of me? A high-school dropout with a fierce intelligence, my mother insisted that my brother and I be strivers—the best, the brightest and the most beautiful. So I guess you could say my mother gave me the gift of never quite being satisfied with myself—which was no gift at all and has, in fact, been the source of most of the grief in my life.

The other gift she gave me, however, balanced that vague and familiar sense of not being quite good enough.

My mother gave me words. I suppose you could say that, in the truest sense, she inspired words in me. She breathed them into me.

In what seems now a quaintly tender gesture, she never left me without a story. In her stiletto heels and black, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress, she would stop before going out to read something to my brother and me. And that something was never garbage.

When I was a young woman and The Jungle Book was made into an animated movie, I remember my disappointment at how jolly Disney made an essentially heartbreaking tale. I remember the tears in my mother’s eyes as she read of the wolf mother releasing her son Mowgli to go back to the human world, telling him that she and Mowgli’s father were growing old. I remembered how the wolves greeted the other animals in the Indian jungle: “We be of one blood, ye and I.”

I remember the story of a young girl called Velvet who got a horse for a shilling in a lottery and won the Grand National Steeplechase. I don’t remember a time that I didn’t realize that I was Jo in Little Women, and Laura in Little House in the Big Woods. My mother read me the story of the Firebird, and the ancient Norse tale of Baldur, slain with an arrow made of holly, and all of the Greek and Roman myths—until the names of the gods and goddesses were as familiar to me as friends.

She read me poems. We had an old set of Childcraft Encyclopedia, bound in fake red stuff that looked like leather, and, over and over, until I could repeat every word, my mother read to me of Bess, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, of the moon that was a Griffon’s egg, of The Raven that spoke only one word (but what a word!), of the phantom deer arising when Daniel Boone went by at night, of Paul Revere and the rude bridge that arched the flood. So passionate a reader was she that, though I’ve been to the rude bridge that arched the flood in Concord, MA, a hundred times, I still can’t repeat the words to that poem without choking up. My mother never explained to me what anything was about in the stories and poems she read to me. The way that she read them made the meaning self-evident. She could barely get through the end of the Robert Burns poem “Jon Anderson, my Jo!” or “Gunga Din” (why was she reading those things to a kid, anyhow?) because those poems were so noble and so sad.

And she wasn’t just stuck on reading, but on words.

She didn’t encourage me to play sports. She didn’t come to the plays I was in and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask her to participate in the bake sale at school or be a Brownie leader.

Maybe all she really cared about was reading words. The fact that words had an almost alchemic power, she didn’t have to tell me. It was evident from her inflection. It was evident in the power words had over us, her children.

I suppose that my brother and I were the same sort of bickering, bouncing, bellowing kids that my own kids are. But our mother could bring us to our seats with a sentence. “There was a gypsy woman who had one son....” She could send us flying into our beds by picking up a book. Even seated at her dressing table, applying kohl in elaborate strokes over her fabulous eyes, she would create characters from her tubes, pencils and brushes and put them in the stories she told us, from the story of Diane the Hunter to the story of Gypsy Rose Lee. We could tell that Juliet wasn’t pining but really frustrated when she snapped, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” (But how did my mother, who wouldn’t have, by the age of fifteen, gotten far enough in school to know Shakespeare from Rod McKuen, put that over to an eleven-year-old person using a jar of Noxzema as the balcony?)

Maybe my mother could have been the writer I’m probably never going to be.

Not only did she have a flair for the dramatic in life and art, she never settled for anything but the best—in our selves (to our despair), but also in what we read (to our exaltation).

Now, it occurs to me that my mother probably was bored by reading to kids and would have considered reading contemporary kid things a waste of her time. So she read us things that moved her and excited her. Perhaps, indeed, she was reading them for the first time when she read them to us.

To a greater or lesser degree, with some success, I’ve done the same thing with my children.

They don’t dare bring me bedtime books based on Scooby-Doo or Transformers or even A Christmas Carol in any form but the original Dickens. For this, they all sort of hate me. But most of them could recite any number of Emily Dickinson poems by second grade because they heard them so often. At the end of the day, that’s probably a better gift to them than all the soccer games and school plays and Saturday nights at home I’ve put in. They all know a good word or a good tale when they hear it.

When my mother died, my father asked me if I wanted to choose a line for the stone on her grave. I did want to, and I did do it. I chose “She walks in beauty, like the night...” And I know my mother would have gotten it, and would have approved.

~Jacquelyn Mitchard

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