My mother was a storyteller. As one of seven children growing up in Liverpool, she accumulated a horde of family anecdotes which she passed on to me. I recycled some of them into fiction, for example, my Titanic story “Left on the Shore” in the anthology So Much Depends Upon…”. After Mum’s death, it turned out that some of them were always fiction: see, “Losing my Irish Grandfather” in the Whatcom Writes’ 2020 anthology “Discovery.”

The importance of storytelling—and story listening—was brought home to me recently when I led a writing workshop at an assisted living facility. I’d planned to talk about the concept of memoir, narrative arc, scenic depiction, etc. but the bulk of the time would be devoted to writing. For various reasons, the writing never happened. Instead we told stories.

Georgia

Georgia’s mother’s celebrated her ninetieth birthday at a party in Jerome, Idaho. Her mother had been the first child born after the city’s founding in the first years of the twentieth century, and so she bore the somewhat awkward name of Jeroma. At ninety, Jeroma had dementia, but her social skills were still intact. As she graciously accepted the key to the city from the assembled dignitaries, she turned to her daughter and whispered, “Who are these people?”

Lucy

Lucy described her first ever job interview at age 35 when she suddenly became the family breadwinner. With no experience and only what she described as “domestic” skills, Lucy went on to a high-power career, managing the home office of a California congresswoman, and as executive assistant to several titans of industry.

Jim

Jim took us to the main street of a small Montana town in winter, snow falling silently. He introduced us to a young boy looking into a toy shop window. There was the object of his desire: a Roman galley with mechanical oars that propelled the vessel forward. Would it be his gift? “That was the last Christmas with my father.”

Ruth

With a newly empty nest, Ruth and her husband welcomed a Nepalese student into their home amongst the cornfields of South Dakota. That act of hospitality led to a multi-generational international friendship that continues fifty years later. Only as an aside did Ruth tell us that she had been a Fulbright scholar in Nepal in the 1950’s.

Untold Stories

I didn’t get to meet another resident, the 102-year-old woman who worked with Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. The idea of all the stories waiting to be told by elders in care homes inspired me to think about ways to capture them before they inevitably disappear with their narrators. Recordings in the style of Storycorps broadcasts on NPR? A service project for high schoolers whose technology skills could be enlisted to transcribe the words, scan the photos, and preserve for the future the wisdom of the past?

How I wish I had asked my mother more questions about her early life, and probed behind the familiar anecdotes with their often humorous punchlines to discover their context and deeper significance. But the present preoccupied me—pursuing a career, raising children. And now it’s too late. Stories are gifts from one generation to the next, but if only we take the time to unwrap them.

“That was the last Christmas with my father.”

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