Co-published with the Debutante Ball Substack.
In honor of Mothers Day and the 2023 National Women's History Theme of "Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories," I would like to introduce you to my mom, Diane Hatlestad Walsh.
Mom is 94 years old. She had a long career as a medical transcriptionist and has been retired now for over 25 years. She lives independently in her own condo, drives her own car, and does her own shopping and cooking.
Not long ago, she took a memory class at the local senior center where one of the exercises was to make up a simple story that linked together particular things that needed to be remembered. She reported, with not a little pride, that everyone was astounded at how quickly and easily she came up with those little stories. I imagine she was better at it than anyone in the room, including the instructors, because, as she explained to them, she makes up stories like that all the time, has always done so. And if you do anything for 90 years, you get pretty good at it.
I would not say that Mom is an exceptional storyteller. She can sometimes spin a good yarn, but she can also forget the punchline to a needlessly shaggy shaggy dog story. However, she is a phenomenal storymaker. She can look at a stranger in a restaurant, observe how they are dressed, or what they are eating, or how they treat the wait staff, and come up with an outline of what they did that morning, or what happened to them on the drive to the restaurant, or what they are planning to do the rest of the day. Another time, she might decide what their childhood was like, or what kind of relationship they had with their physician.
This is entertainment for her, though not necessarily for those she chooses to tell these stories to. It used to drive me crazy when I was growing up, most especially when the subject of her storymaking was not a stranger, and she seemed convinced that her story was accurate. As someone who was making up stories about those same people myself, I knew hers wasn't the only option. I learned very young that if you don't have all the facts, there is always more than one explanation for whatever you're trying to explain.
That is generally the purpose of Mom's storymaking—not to remember something, as it was in her senior center class, but to make sense of something. Usually that something is why people do the things they do.
I don't know whether my own preoccupation with exploring motives comes to me through genes or through constant example, but I definitely got it from my mother. The stories Mom makes embody her values and her assumptions about human behavior, and whether I have gone along with or pushed against her beliefs, her continual storymaking has shaped my interpretation of the world. It has had a more profound influence on my writing than anything else I can think of.
So thank you, Mom. Happy Mother's Day.