“Will you read it?”
There is, of course, only one possible answer to that question. So I said yes, promised to stop by later in the week, and tried not to panic. But a question of my own circled relentlessly: How could I critique my mother?
Days of agonizing contemplation followed. Then I came up with the same solution I’d used my entire life. I’d just lie and say it was fine. Everything was fine. Great in fact. Super. Having made that momentous decision, I took myself to my mother’s house for lunch and a look see.
It felt so weird. My mom, having been busy popping out three kids by the age of 18, never got a chance to finish high school, yet she’s always been a reader. By the time I was twelve, she automatically passed her paperback Victoria Holt, Catherine Cookson, and Taylor Caldwell novels on to me.
Mom had been a writer, too. She’d sent some short stories to school with me when I was in third grade. My teacher, Mr. Potter, profusely complimented them and drove me home from school in his convertible.
I learned later that he’d tried to date my mother, who was, at the time, separated from my dad.
Another one of my mother’s many talents is drawing. She sketched for us all the time when we were little. Her mother was a painter, her father a writer. She got both creative gifts, and passed one along to me.
Back at Mom’s place, lunch dispensed with, she handed me a spiral notebook. I opened it to the first page, which was covered in single spaced, lightly penciled script. Every page had a drawing or two, too.
I read through the story, immediately caught up in the adventures of their cat Sam. And Mom’s drawings were great: simple penciled strokes vibrating emotion.
So I didn’t have to lie when I said it was great. The only major problem was that she hadn’t finished the last part, but instead summarized it. She didn’t know how to do it, she said. Could I help? She asked.
This was back in the days when I didn’t have time to finish my own stories, let alone anybody else’s, so I told her to try to fix it herself.
“It’s great, Mom. Really.” My tone apparently contained a “but.”
“What?” Mom asked.
“Well, some parts, I don’t know, is this really for kids?”
“You mean because he dies.”
“Yeah, and the bird-stalking.”
She tucked the book into a shelf of paperbacks. “You’re probably right,” she said.
“But I love it. I really do.”
A few weeks later I asked Mom if she’d finished the story.
“No, not yet,” she said.
Every couple of years, I’d bring it up. After my parents moved from their house to a condo, she said she’d lost it in the move.
Ten years passed.
And then a few days before this Mother’s Day, something possessed me. I bought her an illustrated book featuring cats. She thanked me profusely even though these days she prefers thick historical novels to slim volumes about cats. I told her the book reminded me of the story she’d once written and asked if she’d ever found it.
“Yes,” she surprised me by saying. “Oh, yes, I have it.” There was a note of deep satisfaction in her tone.
“That’s great,” I said.
Maybe because so many of my writing students want to write children’s stories, the idea occurred to me. I should put Mom’s cat tale into Your Words, Your Story. Mom agreed, although she reminded me about the unfinished ending.
“No problem,” I said. “I’ll fix it for you.” She had summarized everything. I just needed to put a couple more part in scene, using the voice of the story.
The voice of the story belongs to Sam, a real cat who adopted my parents long after all we kids had left home, but more than Sam, the voice of the story is my mom’s. I recognized it. Her natural rhythms and ways of speaking came through.
The character of Sam allowed room for interjections of sly humor as well as the precarious balance of light and darkness that is my mother’s worldview.
Maybe because she is my mother, I had no trouble dropping down into her voice to finish the story. I typed it up and sent her a copy straight away. See if you can tell where my mom stopped writing and I started.
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