“Memoirs are very popular,” my mother told me once years ago. “You should write a memoir.”
At the time, the idea seemed preposterous. Ethan, resting against my chest in his little carrier, was two months old at the time and my new life as his mother seemed tiny. In fact, the walk we were taking to the drugstore when my mom made this suggestion was my big outing for the week.
It’s been over fifteen years, but I am writing that memoir, though I think my attraction to creative nonfiction has less to do with my mother’s advice than her influence. She wasn’t a writer but she was a fabulous gossip.
Long after my father retired when I was in middle school, my mom kept her job as a secretary ostensibly for pocket money, but really to socialize, listen, and catch any bits she could of human drama.
“I’ve got dirt,” she’d say as we ate supper at our small Formica table. From her mouth, the word sounded as though it signified something delicious.
She was a good storyteller. When she described her boss’s divorce, I could feel his loneliness and disappointment. When she moved on to a coworker’s hysterectomy, I glimpsed what it must be like to learn you had to have integral parts of yourself removed. Yet all along, it troubled me that, to her, no event was too intimate to be passed around the table with the dinner rolls.
When I was in my twenties and living on my own, my mother briefly held a volunteer job at a local mental health clinic. One afternoon she met me for lunch at a café on Bleeker Street. Leaning into the table, she told me excitedly, “I read Kerry’s file.”
“You didn’t!” Kerry had been my best friend in sixth grade. We had long been out of touch. “Don’t tell me anything.”
My mother looked stricken. “But I have to.”
“No!” I said a bit loudly.
“I have to,” she said again. It came to me that she meant it literally. Insisting my mother keep the kind of information she’d uncovered to herself was like asking her not to exhale. I braced myself to learn more about my old friend than I cared to.
It was an uncomfortable role, recipient of my mother’s gossip. And of course, through the years, I’d had my own confidences betrayed. In my case, she wasn’t trying to collect salacious details; still, she revealed my secrets and meddled in my relationships in ways I sometimes found mortifying.
A few weeks after I married Richard, my mom helped me clean out my tiny Greenwich Village studio to make more room for his things. She picked up a bright pink negligee I’d tossed on top of the thrift store pile.
“This looks new,” she said, peering at me through its flimsy fabric.
“Yeah. I got it as a wedding gift from Aunt Dorothy. It’s not exactly my style.”
“Why don’t you let her exchange it? She’d get you something you like.”
“I already sent her a thank-you note. It’s fine. I’d rather just give it away.”
My mom folded the negligee and put it in her handbag. “I’ll take it. I hate for it to go to waste.”
“Won’t Dad be surprised?” I quipped as I continued sorting through my dresser drawers.
A week later a package came in the mail from my Aunt Dorothy. It was a simple cotton nightshirt, the kind I usually wore. “I hope this suits you better,” she wrote in her note.
I flushed with embarrassment, thinking of the card I’d sent thanking Dorothy for the negligee, claiming in fact to have worn it on my honeymoon.
Still, when my marriage became difficult, I found myself turning to my mother for advice.
“Please keep this between us,” I asked of her.
“I will,” she promised. But the next time we spoke, she informed me, “I was talking to Phyllis about your problem, and it turns out her daughter went through something similar . . . ”
Again and again, I vowed never to tell my mother anything. But it wasn’t a vow I could keep. The particulars of my private life often poured forth from me with no more encouragement than the sound of my mother’s voice forming the question, How are you? I wasn’t alone in this. People naturally confided in my mom. It was her unique gift, this quality that made opening up to her irresistible. To her credit, she found ways to put it to good use. On Sundays, she volunteered at a senior center, running a discussion group where she offered a quote from something she’d read or thought up a question to inspire the group to reminiscence. Her program was so popular and lasted for so many years, she one day found herself to be older than many of its participants.
Through the years, I heard many of the seniors’ stories. One anecdote that stayed with me was shared by a woman who had grown up poor in Eastern Europe. Her childhood home was unheated and one winter morning, as she shivered under her many layers of sweaters, her mother took the little girl’s hands and tucked them beneath her own breasts. Finally, the chill left her bones. Though I was twelve and usually giggled at the mention of body parts, I read nothing prurient into this tale. I understood that my mom was asking me to think about circumstances less fortunate than my own. I also recognized that the story was a testament to just how boundary-less mother-love could be.
Shortly after my mom turned eighty, just two years before she died, she took a job as a phone solicitor. Crammed into a small office with her much younger colleagues, she sold magazine subscriptions, reading the sales pitch off index cards taped to the wall. Her customers must have sensed the same warmth and encouragement in her manner that her confidants had. Just as they’d revealed their secrets, these strangers freely gave her their credit card numbers. Within a month, she had the top sales rank in the office. Her boss, meaning it in the best possible sense, called her a monster.
What was it about my mother that made us want to say yes to her, to share ourselves with her despite the fact that to do so was as good as going on public record? I believe it had something to do with how attentively she listened. She drew us out because her interest in us was genuine. In her presence, our experiences had weight.
I also now know that even as she dished about the sagas of our neighbors and friends, she was teaching me to never oversimplify, to never think about people generically. I learned from her that everyone’s stories are important, a lesson I’ve worked hard to share with Ethan and keep in mind every time I sit down to write.