Before my first reading and signing event at White Square Books in April, I knew I wanted to introduce myself, in part, by talking about how I became inspired to be a writer.
And that meant I had to figure it out.
I traced the roots back to 1985, when I started a career as a journalist in the Pioneer Valley. Then I traced it back further to the writing I did in college, for the then Westfield State College newspaper, The Owl, and then back to Walpole High School, where I also wrote for the school paper. And then back even further, to my poetry writing and journaling days in junior high school.
But then I realized my love of storytelling went all the way back to my early childhood, to my living room couch and kitchen table at 1 Eleanor Road in Walpole, Mass., and to my mother, Evelyn Beetle, who is the best storyteller going.
Now, I want to tell you a story about my mom, and how appropriate to do so just before Mother’s Day.
My mother can turn anything into a story – a conversation she overheard at the grocery store, an interaction at the bank, a walk around the block, an afternoon at the bridge table. All of life is good fodder for her stories, which are rich in detail and told to evoke laughter, shared indignation or sympathy.
When my father came home from work in the evenings, my parents would sit in the living room and talk about their day, and the conversation continued at the dinner table. I listened eagerly, intently, as my mother always had something interesting to say.
I especially loved when the story was about me.
Like the time I was 6 or so and came home from school with an essay I had written about my older brothers, Allan and Jeff. My mother told the story to my dad this way:
“Jan brought home the nicest paper today from school, Scud,” my mother said, beginning to spin her tale for my dad. “She was assigned to write about her family, and she wrote a glowing essay about her two older brothers and how sweet they are to her. She said they treat her like a queen and carry her to the dinner table on her birthday.”
Sometimes my mother would repeat things, to make sure my father was listening.
“She said they treat her like a queen,” she emphasized. My dad listened and chewed and nodded. In my family, he often didn’t get a word in.
“I hung the essay on the fridge,” my mother continued.
“Then I was making dinner, and Janice was sitting at the kitchen table. She asked me how to spell ‘turd,’ and I spelled it for her,” my mother said.
She paused for effect here. Got that mischievous look in her eye. She was going in for the hook. My dad and I were biting. Even though the story was about me, at 6, I didn’t understand what she found so amusing. I didn’t get that the story was not really about my words on brotherly love.
“A few minutes later, I found her nice, loving essay on the kitchen table.”
Another pause. My mom’s a master. My dad and I were both waiting for that punch line we knew was coming.
“There was a new note scrawled on the back,” she said.
“It said, ‘Allan Beetle is a bird turd.’”
My parents laughed at the irony of my lack of loyalty to my brothers and how quickly I had turned from adoration to sibling rivalry. I laughed because they were laughing.
In telling and retelling stories like these – for friends, neighbors, family – my mom taught me the beauty of irony. She passed on the value of rich details, pacing, dramatic pause. This is how my mom taught me to tell great stories.
When she tells this bird turd story now, my mom likes the shock value of adding that she keeps that essay tucked inside the family Bible.
Happy Mother’s Day mom. You are a great storyteller, and I love you!