My mother scared the hell out of me a couple of nights ago. She called when I was in the middle of an evening run, and my heart nearly froze in my chest when her name appeared on my phone. If you don’t know my family, that probably seems like an overreaction. It isn’t. Mom NEVER calls me unless it’s an absolute emergency, and (in her mind) nothing short of planetary cataclysm is dire enough to justify a phone call after 6:00PM. So seeing her number pop up gave me a jolt of pure adrenaline.
I hopped off the treadmill, and practically sprinted out of the gym to find a quiet place to answer the phone. I was expecting to hear a report of death, or at the very least, the black plague. But despite her long and well-established phone habits, Mom was just calling for a casual chat.
After my heart rate came back down to something approaching normal, we talked for about fifteen minutes, rambling through a dozen odd subjects before we arrived at our favorite topic. Books.
I got the reading gene from Mom. Growing up, I could never remember a time when she didn’t have two or three tattered paperbacks crammed into her purse. Mary Roberts Rinehart, Dorothy Gilman, Ellery Queen, P. G. Wodehouse, Leon Uris, and a thousand others. She loves books, and she managed to contaminate me with her addiction early in my childhood. I’ve got it bad… My personal book collection could easily be mistaken for a medium sized-branch library, and it will only get worse as the years go by.
So Mom and I were yakking away about what we’re reading now, what we just finished reading, and what we’re going to read next when it suddenly hit me. I didn’t just get the reading gene from my mother. I got the writing gene from her too.
If you’ve seen me at book signings, or caught one of my radio or television interviews, you know that I generally attribute my love of writing to my father. He used to make up wild stories about a bear named Oliver, who drank chocolate milk, and went on crazy adventures with a little boy named Charlie. Dad died when I was seven years old, and I started trying to write down some of his Oliver the Bear stories about a year later. I’ve always considered that the beginning of my journey as a writer.
But the longer I talked to Mom on the phone the other night, the more I realized that she has been the greatest influence on my desire to write. I’ve spent so much time focusing on the handful of stories left to me by my long-gone father, that I’ve overlooked my mother’s gifts as a storyteller. Her stories are funny; they’re scary; they’re heartbreaking, and they’re always fascinating. When Mom tells a story, you shut up and listen. You can’t help yourself. She will enthrall you.
When she tells the story of the automatic transmission problems we had during a vacation trip to Miami, she’ll have you laughing so hard that you’ll be in danger of peeing your pants. Her ghost stories about Mama Fonnie’s old house in Stillmore, Georgia are positively chilling. And don’t get her started on the whole thing about taking her towel to belly dance at my school’s PTA.
Mom is so damned good at storytelling, that I’ve never realized just how good she really is. But her influence doesn’t end there. She was urging me to write long before I had the courage to set pen to paper. She encouraged me to take typing in school, because she knew the skill would come in handy when I got serious about writing.
Finances were tight after Dad died, and Mom worked her butt off to keep food on the table. It was nearly impossible to wheedle money out of her, because there wasn’t much to be had. Trying to get my mother to advance $2.00 against my allowance was like trying to get God to repeal the law of gravity. Not happening. Not no way. Not no how. But when I asked for $25.00 to buy a used typewriter, Mom dug the money out of her purse without pausing to think. I don’t know how she squeezed it out of our pitiful family budget, but she did it.
My mother taught me to love the written word, and to appreciate the wonder and value of books. She treated me to a lifetime of stories, tall tales, anecdotes, and family legends. She encouraged me to seek out the training that I would need to polish my craft. And she believed in me.
I loved my father, and I’ll never forget the stories he told me. I’m sure that some of it rubbed off on me, and I will forever be grateful for that. But if there is such a thing as the writing gene, I don’t think I got it from him. I got it from my mother.
Thanks, Mom. I forgive you for scaring the crap out of me the other night. Call again any time.