Late in her life, my mother was telling us about someone who had recently moved into her apartment building. My mother had known the woman from childhood, when they both lived in a crowded immigrant neighborhood. Later the residents dispersed throughout the region around Boston, but many were converging now in a senior citizens’ development.
My mother’s knowledge of these people’s lives seemed encyclopedic. One little old lady she pointed out in a restaurant had, I was informed, “a terrible reputation” back in high school. One man in the building was divorced by his first wife because, the woman claimed, he was “too big.” I asked if the man was popular now among the women in the building who knew the story.
As we heard the story of the new resident, I realized that I grew up listening to stories. Family gatherings, by the time tea was served at the end of a meal, were occasions for storytelling. When the gatherings included grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles, the stories were mostly in Yiddish, which I couldn’t understand. Later, when it was my parents’ generation of aunts and uncles, I learned much of what I knew about human nature from their stories of struggle, scandal, and ironic developments.
My mother’s stories, then and now, usually had a classic structure of beginning, middle, and end, and like all good art, illustrated some aspect of human life or social reality. I realized, hearing the latest story, that my own interest in telling stories came from this background.
Her father, my grandfather, would tell long, detailed stories. One of his first languages was Russian and, in the Russian manner, he would conclude a story with a perfectly appropriate proverb. Just before he became lost in dementia, he sat with me telling a detailed story of his early years in America, as a young man working in factories in Chelsea, that immigrant community outside Boston.
It didn’t occur to me to write everything down. I didn’t realize yet that all the stories I heard were literature and needed to be saved.