The first story I remember is one my mother told me. I was three years old, and we were living in Bethesda, where my father, a doctor, fulfilled his military service by doing research at the National Institutes of Health—a “yellow beret.” I had an older brother, but he must have been outside playing or in his room. In any case my mother and I were in the kitchen, alone. She was on the phone.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked.
She was standing by the window with her back half-turned to me, but she glanced back to answer, “The man in the moon.”
It must have been spring or summer. I still remember the way the light poured into the room, playing on her dark hair, cropped short, her elegantly arched eyebrows, her high-bridged nose, and full lips. She wore a sleeveless blouse, open at the neck, and light-colored slacks, pedal-pushers. She cradled the phone against her shoulder, and her hands played with its long twisting cord as she talked. Her eyes were lively, her mouth mobile, turned up to a private joke.
Again and again in my memory, she turns, speaks, and turns away. But I am left rooted in place, stunned in the wake of her words. The man in the moon? How can that be?
Even at three I was old enough to know there was no such thing as a man in the moon—the influence, I suppose, of my resolutely scientific father, who taught me that there were logical explanations for everything. Secretly, if I harbored doubts, I was clever enough to know the moon couldn’t be reached by telephone wires. There was no denying it: my mother had lied to me. My mother, lying? It had never occurred to me that such a thing could be.
Later, when I had children of my own, I understood, of course, that my mother wasn't lying, only playfully deflecting the nagging questions of a three-year-old. But when I began to write, I understood her answer differently. She was only doing what storytellers do best: dissemble the truth of hidden lives.
In no uncertain terms, her answer let me know that she had a private life, one I was not privy to, and over which I had no more control than the man in the moon.
How much of ourselves do we conceal when we tell stories, and how much do we give away? This is the struggle I face every time I sit down to write, and the one that throws me back each time to my mother’s kitchen, caught between truth and lies.
I became a storyteller myself when I turned four. That year we moved to Colorado, and my parents divorced. Soon after my mother emerged with a glittering new life—the one she was convinced would finally make her happy—complete with a new husband and a housekeeper to handle the motherly duties she found so tiresome.
Meanwhile my father moved to an apartment several miles away. After he left, I pined for him so desperately I became ill. At night I wet the bed. I had trouble sleeping; every time I put my head on the pillow, I felt dizzy, as if I were falling backwards into a bottomless pit of darkness. My sleep was disturbed by nightmares, in which I was chased by strange men.
I remember one day lying on the sofa, feeling so sick, I insisted my mother call for the doctor. In my childish way, I imagined she would send for my father, and at least I would be able to see him.
But my brother and I weren’t allowed to see our father when we wanted to. Our visits were determined by the schedule set by the divorce court: every other weekend and half of the summer. I still remember waiting for him to come pick us up on Friday afternoons. He had a black Mercedes, a sporty model with only two seats. As we drove away, my brother sat in front beside him, while I crouched behind on the scratchy carpet where the luggage went.
My mother’s house was sprawling, large enough to give each of us our own room, but my father’s apartment was small, with only two bedrooms, a living room, and kitchen. We all shared a bathroom, and at night my brother and I shared a bed.
These were dark times, symbolized in my memory by the dark prints my father hung on the wall. They terrified me. I remember lying in bed, trying to sleep, haunted by the image of a woman with downcast, sorrowful eyes. Was it my mother, reproaching me for abandoning her? I slipped closer to my brother, trying to avoid her gaze.
My parents were irreconcilable. They disagreed on everything, from money to values to how to raise their children. My misfortune was in loving them both. I wanted to make my mother happy, but I wanted to please my father, too. That meant crafting two completely different selves, and displaying them at the appropriate times, one for my father’s approval, the other for my mother’s.
Is it any wonder I developed a vivid imagination? I was like an empty shell, with no idea of what to think or feel. Caught between two worlds, I had nothing else to fill the gap.
My brother suffered his own private torments. He was older, a boy, and much was expected of him. I don’t know what he thought, but I could read the anguish in his eyes. I loved him, too, and wanted to relieve his suffering. We were in this together, the only constant in a world of turmoil. I learned I could comfort him by telling him stories.
Night after night, as we huddled in bed in our father’s apartment, and the dark faces watched us from their perches on the wall, I whispered stories to my brother, like Scheherazade, who told her stories to stay alive.
I still remember the stories I told him. They were always the same, or slight variations on a theme. In them we were together, in our mother’s womb before we were born. This was our Eden, our lost utopia, where we lived and played together in perfect happiness. Eventually my brother had to leave, to be born before me, but in my story even this separation became a matter of consolation. I relayed how I tenderly prepared him for his arrival in the world, smearing him with blood so that he could emerge naked and anointed. Soon, I assured him, my own birth would follow; he wouldn’t be alone for long.
As we grew older, the stories ceased. Time passed, bringing with it changes, as it always does. Eventually my mother and stepfather had two new children, both boys. My father remarried, had two new children of his own, and moved away, first to New Jersey, then to Chicago. The weekend visits with him stopped, as did, in time, the visits in the summer. By the time we were in college, my brother and I did as we wished with our vacations, and that often meant avoiding both of our parents’ homes.
Now I wonder if he even remembers the stories I told him when we were so young. They made him smile, and they even made him laugh. They were our anchor when we were at sea.