AN EMPIRE OF SMALL WORDS

“Tell me a story your mother told you when you were a kid.”

My mom stands at the clothesline.

I’m either 5 or 6 years old, already a trouble maker. I am lucky my house is full of books and my mother read to me every night. But what I wanted more than anything is a made-up story. One told by mouth.

Ignoring me, my mother keeps slinging wet sheets over the line and holding out her hand to me.

I’m in charge of clothespins. I thought a better delivery system was to clip them all to the hem of my sundress spinning around in circles super-fast and she could catch them. I sent those cheap bits of wood flying in every which direction, getting lost in the ankle high grass my father refuses to mow. He isn’t very helpful either.

She’s tired. She has been working constantly with her full-time job as a seamstress, sewing for private clients at night, cooking and cleaning and at this moment, too busy to pay attention to me.

She deputizes me as a search party of one, and I get on my hands and knees looking for the damn clothes pins. Both of us frustrated I questioned her about my story. What’s the deal? Why won’t you tell me one of the stories your mother told you as a little girl?

“If I find them all will you tell me a story your mother told you when you were a little girl?”

My mother slapped the air with a pillowcase then smoothed out its wet wrinkles hanging it on the line. She lets out a deep sigh, a sigh I can hear coming a mile off, “My mother never told me stories. All we had was war.” 

See, my mother was born in Berlin during WWII. The fact that she survived the bombings, the Russian invasion, the aftermath of war is both a burden and a miracle, and without rhyme or reason. How do you tell your child a story from your own childhood when what you remember most is fear, hunger, and the little princess getting blown up? 

She’s why I write stories. She’s why I perform in front of audiences “by mouth”. Talking about my life and the mishaps I’ve had, and with as much humor as possible because I wanted her to forget what had happened, not permanently, I don’t have that kind of power, but for a few minutes. Everyone deserves a few minutes away from their life.