We count on the constancy of story. Freddy Malins arrives drunk to the party, Desdemona drops the handkerchief, Nell flees home with her primer and then leads a tribe, Rumplestiltskin tears himself in two. When we close a book and shelve it, we are assured of its beginnings and endings remaining the same, and that the story will unfold as it always has for us, as consistent as taxation.
Oral stories, however, migrate and are ever-changing. They are shapeshifters in a world that has no particular cover, back matter, or organized chapters. Morphing across cultures, through time, they live in the breath and memory of the person sharing the story. The listener may attach her own meaning to a detail, and in the retelling, alter the plot or the ending. Oral stories escape boundaries. They are clouds.
When we tell personal stories we are almost always the hero. Hyperbole starts to expand our stories as we age. The plots get twistier, the details juicier. The arc takes longer to travel because we love the audience, the attention, and that someone cares to listen. Our stories tell us who we are and how we’ve changed. They connect us to others. Without them, what happens? Who are we?
My mother has a gold locket that has been in her possession for almost sixty years. When she wasn’t wearing it one day during the 1970s, I discovered it was empty, and was bothered that it had no contents, so I sneaked a large green sequin inside. Lockets were supposed to contain stories. I had no photograph that fit or seemed fair enough, but I had the sequin, a little glint of cheer.
I don’t know anymore which family stories are true. I doubt my own memory of them. Photographs have allowed me to remember or fill in the blanks easily. My sister’s account of a shared story is often a completely different perspective from mine.
There are days now when my mother starts to tell a familiar family tale, then turns to me with a performer’s panicked look to her partner of “take it!” The plot, lost in the details, has shifted course and is flying to another island.
My memory of the gold locket story of my mother’s earlier telling is that it was a nursing school graduation gift from her parents. Yesterday she told me and my sister that she and two other classmates bought them for themselves, and she was the only one out of the group who kept hers for all these years. Is the truth in this story that her parents gifted her money to buy the locket, and she and her friends all got matching ones? Does it matter?
My mother has faced a lot of loss this year. Among the losses, her once reliable memory. She’s becoming the abstract expressionist narrator of her life story. The shifting narratives sometimes bother me, because we once shared the “truth.” What I’m learning from all of this is that maybe there is no truth.
We fear losing ourselves, losing our minds and memories. Genetics play a part, so this could be my fate too, the sureness of erasure. We talk about dementia with verbs of thievery, and rarely with verbs of generosity. It is difficult to write with the additive when there are so many subtractions. There are moments of grace in dementia, like an openness to shifting narratives, the abstract, a letting go of time, allowing the self to be the self as she is now. To just be.
I put a large green sequin into a locket once to stave off what I perceived as emptiness. The story, when I opened the covers of that little gold book, seemed to be missing, but maybe it was just being written in invisible ink. A mystery-romance-thriller-fairytale-fantasy of a life being lived.