Tell Me into Your Story
"Our girl is here!" Gwen says the instant I walk in the door. And Larla, Gwen's ninety-five year old mother, turns to greet me. Her grey eyes are so crammed now with the past there's almost no room for the present, but she gives me a questioning smile. "We love her," Gwen says matter-of-factly, patting her mom's shoulder as I stoop to give her my arrival kiss. "I love you hon," she says in the faded voice I know well, and pats my hand in her brisk way. "We're glad you came to see us." And finally, with another glance at Gwen, she nods as if she has decided for sure and turns to look me straight in the eye: "You're our girl." Those words are a small miracle to me. I visit Kentucky only twice a year, once when the dogwoods are skirted in pink, and once in the fire of fall. It's rare I can visit in between, and while Gwen has known me from birth, Larla hasn't. I'm not, as they say in those Kentucky hills, "kin." I'm just an occasional visitor. Yet Larla, even with Alzheimer's disease, has never forgotten me. Each time I come, she knows me afresh. Some part of her retains its hold on who I am and the fact that she loves me.
I was marveling at this again last week during my spring visit and decided one morning to write about it. Larla sat next to me at the breakfast table patting my left hand as I used my right to jot random musings whenever I got the chance. Gwen was in and out with eggs and orange juice and I was in search of the perfect word, my mind working to the rhythmic clatter of frying pans, when Gwen popped out and asked her mom, "have you said good morning to our girl?"
And in that instant, the mystery cleared. Something about having my pen in hand allowed me to see that Larla had always known me because I had been told into her story. Gwen, I abruptly understood, was a narrator. The moment I walked in the door, Gwen began to tell me into the story of her own life and that of her mom's. Word by word, statement by statement, with comments about "our girl Sarah," and "how much we love her," she narrated my presence into her mother's life. Larla never had a chance to forget me. Gwen sets the scene by helping Larla to greet me, she paints the back story with tales of my visits as a tiny girl, and moves the scene forward with constant affirmations of how lovely a thing it is to have me there. She hugs me in front of Larla, includes me in every detail of her care, and laughs so often that Larla can have no doubt that my visits are gladsome things.
Gwen has used her words to frame me into belonging. This is storytelling at its most real; narrative at its highest power of love. As an author, I am keenly aware of the power of narrative. I struggle so often to get just the right words in place when I attempt to describe a character, because I am profoundly aware of my power as the narrator; that masterful voice tells a reader exactly what to think of any character. A reader's affection or disgust for a book's characters is based on the words in which they are framed. Narration is a form of creative power.
What Gwen has helped me to see is that this power is present in the real life, workaday world as well as the novel. Here we are, all of us telling stories about each other every day. I see now how much our relationships are formed by the narrative of our conversations, our spoken affection or disgust, our gossip (or hopefully, lack of it), our love when it spills into speech. In this light, the power of a word like "welcome." is as good as "once upon a time," because it opens the possibility of friendship, of laughter, of belonging, What crackling possibility. What creative potential, what worlds await us in the most ordinary of realms.
I love that all people - writers, readers, or not - are made to be storytellers. And I think that all God-lovers are required see themselves in this light. We begin with the understanding that God is the first Storyteller of our lives, the one whose narration in Scripture set the scene of the world, sketched our identity, revealed our parts as heroes, heroines... or villains. But I think we partner with him in narration. Faith is one kind of buoyant of storytelling; we speak what we know is true and cannot see. But so is love. Love is a powerful form of narration. Love chooses to speak what is possible about the people it describes. Love narrates lonely people into families. Love uses every word of its story to tell all people into grace. I have decided that I want the narrative I tell about other people to be a hospitable sort, one that tells people into my life as Gwen told me into hers. I want there to be a fireside feel to conversation, a sort of pull-up-a-chair invitation in my words. I want to say to each person that happens into my days, "come on in, I'm going to tell you into my story."
And by God's grace, it'll be a good one.
This is a repost from 2010. Larla has since passed away, but until the day she died, I was "her girl." I have been thinking a lot lately about the way in which our words set the stage for the story we live, and for the story into which we invite the people around us. I've seen a lot of discord this year. And I know that words can kill off a friendship like a cheap character in a novel, or they can tell a hungry soul into the story of fellowship, the story of love. May we all be narrators like Gwen.