Life Depends upon a Sentence

Mom’s head lay on her pillow underneath my arm. I lay half on my chair, half on her bed as her breath grew fainter. I held her hand until her skin reacted uncomfortably to any touch; then I rested my hand next to hers on top of the sheet.

I don’t read much fiction. Fiction is made-up stories about people who never existed. I walk down shelves of fiction at  bookstores, past thousands of pages of things that never happened. Yes, some are written simply for entertainment: the neighbor’s sister murdered the minister’s child, the invasion of planet Earth failed; someone’s witty butler gets his employer out of a jam. Read them and pass them along to a used bookstore or a jail or the church yearly tag sale.

Non-fiction, such as History or Biography, is an attempt to tell what really happened at some time. The attempt will be flawed, but the author is accountable. “That’s NOT the way it happened,” says the neighbor’s sister; “The Earth was not really invaded by aliens,” says Orson Wells; “My butler was as dumb as a rock,” says the gentleman. So instead writers write fiction. How easy to arrange events to their liking, how unaccountable to anyone!

My mother’s family is a family of storytellers. Thanksgiving dinners were a raucous telling and retelling of stories from decades, lifetimes ago. Or just a few years ago. After my cousin Philip died, at each Thanksgiving dinner someone mentioned how much he’d loved canned cranberry sauce. Then the cranberry sauce became something more than cranberry sauce; we passed Philip’s smile around with the small bowl shimmering with red sauce, plopping the smooth jelly next to the stuffing as another story would begin.

After Mom died, the family had a large dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York. I leaned over and told a story to my end of the table: two of Mom’s sisters and a cousin. I told the story of the time my mother was working late at a Western Union office in Manhattan when a burglar came in demanding money. My  aunts, who must have heard that story a thousand times, listened and laughed yet again. My cousin laughed; she’d never heard the story. She agreed that story showed just what Dorothy was like.

My mother once told me that all my grandmother Kate could remember of her mother, Margaret, was her brushing my grandmother’s hair. And an aunt once said that my grandmother Kate remembered her mother pulling her hair when she got impatient. Those two sentences create two realities, two personalities for Margaret. Because there are few other stories about Margaret, much depends on a sentence.

As Mom’s head was cradled under my arm, I saw in her face all the stories that made up her life, that made up Dorothy. Stories we listened to over again, perhaps noticing how they changed a bit according to the teller; then we told them to others. No one corrected anyone. We listened.

One family member went back through records to find the History of our grandmother’s life, and so much is illuminated. Puzzle pieces slide across the picture finding places to fit. The stories catch fire again. And so the story continues.

This week I borrowed a book by Alice Hoffman and one by Anne Tyler. I will not settle in to read, but sit up straight to read stories that come from somewhere and create us.

Then I will read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien because he said, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

-Dorothy A. [Hackett] Barrett, December 3, 1922 – October 6, 2015

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