Stories My Mother Told Me

By on May 6, 2015

By Rebecca Forster–

My parents made a pact to stand on every continent in the world. When my dad passed away, my mother went to the Antarctic for both of them. When she returned and the excitement of the trip wore off, she found herself still standing on a pitching deck with no calm sea in sight. She needed something to distract her.

“Write your memoir,” I suggested. 

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“My life wasn’t interesting,” she answered. 

But the idea must have taken hold. Not long after our conversation, she called me. She was done with her memoir. I was impressed. It takes me nine months to write a novel, and she had written a book in a week. Then I saw her ‘manuscript’. I called her back.

“You’re eighty-five years old and your life story is five pages long. There has to be more.”

So began a year of weekend sleepovers as we poured over twenty beautifully documented photo albums. Her pictures went from faded with age to bright and colorful. 

There was mom in waist-length braids and Mary Jane shoes standing in the German village she called home.

She was a teenager in the U.S. while war raged in Europe, threatening the grandmother she had lived with, cousins and friends. 

Here was mom posing in a swimsuit she bought with the dollar she found on the street. 

Mom in her twenty-five dollar bridal gown perched in the back of a hay wagon beside my father, a skinny, wide-eyed farm boy who would become a doctor. 

Mom with one child. Two. Three. Five. Six of us all together. Dark haired and big eyed, we were her clones dressed in beautiful, homemade clothes. I remember going to sleep to the sound of her sewing machine.

Words were another matter. My mother has never been comfortable talking about herself so I bribed her with Taco Bell feasts and she started talking. I heard unbelievable tales of hardship, joy and heroic practicality.

To keep body and soul together when my father was in med school, he was a professional mourner and bussed tables for a wealthy fraternity. My mom worked in a medical lab where the unchecked radiation caused her to lose her first baby. They ate lab rabbits that had given their all for pregnancy tests.  They were in love and happy and didn’t know they were poor. They lived in St. Louis, Missouri but St. Louis was cold, she remembered, and they couldn’t afford winter coats.

She typed, I edited; I typed, she talked. My youngest brother almost died when he was 10. She didn’t cry until she knew he would live. The captain of the ship that took her back to Germany as a six-year old girl was kind. She dreamed of becoming a missionary doctor. Madam Curie was her hero. In 1954, she had two toddlers (me and my brother) and another baby on the way when she and dad drove to Fairbanks, Alaska where he would serve his residency at the pleasure of the U.S. Air Force. Her favorite outfit ever was a 1940s suit with a white collar. She loved her long hair rolled at her neck. In the fifties she made a black dress with rhinestone straps and her hair was bobbed. In the sixties she made palazzo pants and sported a short bouffant. She looked like a movie star in her homemade clothes. I wanted to grow up to be as glamorous as she was. She still thought she wasn’t interesting but I was enthralled.

Mom wrote the forward to her memoir herself. I was not allowed to see it until we had the book printed. It began:

A great sense of loneliness fills the house as twilight approaches. In the silence, I can almost hear the voices of my grown children as they recall their childhood years, the laughter of grandchildren and the quiet conversations of friends who have gathered here in years past, echoing through the empty rooms.  

You see, she really had no need of my help as a writer. Mom’s way with words was sure and beautiful. We had copies printed and gave them to my brothers and sisters at Christmas.

Now I have a book more treasured than any I have written. I learned a lot about my mom and my dad, but I also had a personal epiphany. I finally understood why I create fictional women of courage, conviction, strength, curiosity, and intelligence and, most of all, spirit. It’s because, all this time, I’ve been writing about my mother.  

Rebecca lives in Southern California. She is married to a prominent Los Angeles Superior Court judge and is the mother of two grown sons. Travel is a passion and when she is not writing you can find her on a tennis court, in front of a sewing machine or on the couch with a book in her hand. You can find her at her website:

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Stories My Mother Told Me