Last year my mother turned 80, and we celebrated with a family trip to Montana. The gift she cherished most was not the picture frame we had engraved or even the matching bracelets I made for all the women in the family. It was simply being surrounded by her family, laughing, toasting and sharing memories and stories together.
But afterward, a sort of gloominess set in as Mom experienced a letdown after her Big Event. It was evident in our daily phone conversations as she recited a litany of new complaints: Her book group was boring, all of her friends were sick or moving to Florida, her doctor never called her back.
You need something to do, Mom, something to focus on to keep you excited about life, I told her with the certainty of a psychiatrist.
Theres still a lot out there for you. Why dont you take a class, start painting again or write about your life?
Mom responded to the last idea like a flower in need of water. Since I live more than 2,000 miles away, I gave her a crash phone course on how to use Google to research where she might find a writing class. She called a friend and they began to plan it together.
The friend, she confided to me, didnt even like Florida and was staying put for the winter. Within a few days, they had both enrolled in Writing Your Memoirs and what transpired over the next 10 weeks is a story in itself.
The first week she called me daily not with complaints but with questions about how to use this darn machine to make it do what she wanted. When my long distance computer tutoring didnt do the trick, I told her to go to her local library where they have tutoring for free.
My mother is not a technically gifted person, but what she lacks in mechanical skills she more than makes up in willful determination.
At the library she met a retired woman who volunteered to come to her house to help her. What started out as a lesson in Microsoft Word blossomed into a lovely friendship as my mother and her new friend began to share their lives over Diet Coke and the keyboard.
As the semester unfolded, I heard a renewed energy in Moms voice. She would call and tell me about the dream she had of a childhood friend or a memory about her father walking through the apartment where they lived when she was two years old.
Because my mother lost both of her parents just before her third birthday, the stories she has been told about them were crucial to her sense of being. In her darkest moments, it was stories about her family that kept the pieces of her life together. Writing about them now did much to bring renewed meaning to her days and a sense of peace to her life.
Without our stories we are drifters: they act as anchors in the turbulent waters of our lives. But stories, like water, are fluid. Each time one is repeated, something is changed. A small detail is added, a few words are left out, a name once lost is remembered. What matters most is not that the facts are true but that the deeper truths within the stories are revealed.
My mother sent me a folder with the work she submitted for her final class. She wrote in the voice of Jamilla, the grandmother who raised her after both of her parents died. As I read them with a lump in my throat that refused to recede, I found these truths:
That no matter how lost or lonely we may be, when we feel loved and connected to family, we can survive the worst of times. And it is through the discovery and sharing of our stories with others be they our children, grandchildren, or friends that we can appreciate the meaning of our life and let our life have continued meaning.