by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 6, 2007, 2007
MY UNIVERSE IS MADE OF STORIES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- They say that before you die, your life passes in front of your eyes. Another way to see your life is to throw a 90th birthday party for your mother.
Which is what I did this past weekend.
Mom came up from Florida for the event - a formal dinner Saturday night and a sunlit brunch on our deck the next morning. It's getting harder and harder for Mom to make such a long trip, but at the dinner she was glittering and lovely.
We were joined by friends and what's left of our family - after all, 90 years takes its toll. Each person had a story to tell about my mother. And somewhere in the middle, I realized they had become my stories as well.
The stories go back more than a century. They start with my grandmother, Flora, who was one of seven. Six of the brothers and sisters grew up to marry and have children of their own. The founding seven were represented by mother's cheerful first cousin, Ruth, now well into her eighties.
Ruth is the younger daughter of Flora's older sister, Nancy. When Ruth arrived at our house, my mother burst into tears. All those long-gone elders, my mother's late brother and Ruth's late sister, my mother's happy childhood (where she was spoiled rotten), those school years and summers at the beach, the clothing and pastimes and recipes and passions, sprung back into life as the two women, who rarely get to see each other, embraced.
Ruth's daughter, Ellen, accompanied her. She's a bit younger than I am, but while I was growing up, our families would get together at Ruth's house on Long Island and Ellen would be one of the babies crawling around on the floor. Now she's a health care professional and a student of shamanism.
Ruth and Ellen came from New York with Joan, the daughter of Jack, the youngest of the seven. Even though Joan, Ruth and my mother are first cousins, Joan has been my closest friend - a quasi-sister - for all of my life. We were born less than four months apart. When we were kids - and mind you, it was a simpler, safer time - we would meet in Manhattan on Saturdays, see Broadway shows together and then go and have Japanese food.
Joan represents my both grandmother's generation and my own childhood. An busy industrialist, two days after the party she was on the "Today" show talking about intergenerational friendships.
With Joan, Ruth and Ellen came another Joan, one with a different story to tell. This Joan is the daughter of Claire and Leon, close friends in Florida of my mother and father. After Claire died, my mother and her second husband, Harold, took care of Leon. And after he died, too, they supported Joan as she went through the sad ritual of selling their belongings and their house.
This Joan, now retired, lives in a stunning apartment in New York which she has made available to my mother on many, many occasions. She came to Vermont to thank my mother for all her support and help.
Speaking of Harold, his two witty and accomplished adult children came up from New York as well. My mother and Harold had a happy second marriage, which certainly extended his life. And during that time, Beth and Raymond came to love my mother. They have remained close since Harold died.
Also gone now is my younger brother, but his two daughters were at the celebration. They have grown into lovely young women, and the eldest has a charming husband and a son of her own - my mother's first great-grandchild. (He was there too, a remarkably well-behaved toddler.) With them was their mother, who was estranged from my brother at the time of his dying. She has been estranged from the rest of us ever since. Her presence may presage a reconciliation; there are many bonds to mend, however, and it may not.
Although my mother lives in Florida, she has friends of her own in Vermont. Through her visits here, she has grown close to my friends. She has even involved some of them in her passion, dance. They were happy to come out to celebrate her birthday.
So we had four generations of family, plus friends, plus a host of ghosts who flickered in and out of the faces around the table.
My mantra has always been a quote from the poet Muriel Rukeyser: "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." Now I realize that even more than creativity, respect for stories has been my mother's greatest gift to me.
People carry their stories with them - the stories of their ancestors, their parents, their childhoods, their marriages, their tragedies and their rich joys. Stories are passed down from generation to generation, just as wealth and possessions are.
Because I know how to read my mother's many, many stories - 90 years worth of stories! - I now see that they have become my own.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com.