My memories of my mother are filled with her memories of herself. She was not one to keep her stories secret. My siblings and I were well-acquainted with the details of the daily routines and occasional adventures that made up her early years. We were quite aware that she was a real person with a real life well before she was our mother.
We heard all this: The Depression-era Christmas when an umbrella was her only gift. The frivolity of her extended family’s beer and polka parties. Her embarrassment at always being the shortest kid in the class. Her bobby-soxer days hanging out at the soda fountain. The time when she and a friend dared to sneak into Louis Armstrong’s dressing room.
Her stories opened a window for us into the sensitive, funny, daring, and self-conscious girl that she was. We were thrilled to make her acquaintance.
Steeped in this rich experience, I now share my life–the sweetness, disappointments, triumphs, missteps, and hilarity–with my own daughter. From early on I have let the anecdotes tumble out as Karis and I have pored over my photo albums and memorabilia. No embellishments or exaggerations are needed. Even the mundane can be fascinating when it’s your mom in the Way Back When Machine.
Here’s a little of what she’s heard: My stunning performance as the Maple Tree in the third grade Arbor Day play. Getting unstoppable giggles at family dinners. Throwing up at highly inappropriate times, including my grandfather’s funeral. Enjoying deliciously open summer days of playing stoopball and reading comic books. The car accident that caused the scar beneath my chin. My dad singing us to sleep with cowboy songs.
If Karis has ever grown tired of these stories, she has been too kind to let on. But I know that she listens and has learned the same basic lessons that I learned from my mother sharing memories across generations: Mortifying moments don’t last forever; there are far more times of love than of loss; and sometimes you laugh so hard the milk comes out your nose.
Karis’s stories are happening now. I hope she’s taking notes.
Nan Knutson grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her daughter, Karis, is 11.