Mum, the consummate, reluctant storyteller and what she teaches us.
Mum tells a great story and ever so often lets out a hearty chuckle, which can quickly be followed by a sombre struck tone.
She, I guess, like many mums had a knack for it. There’s the drama, pregnant pauses, characters and unabashed feelings about them, inflections for emphasis. She’s partly learnt this, though perhaps she’d deny it from watching soap operas: Dallas, Peyton Place. Crossroads, Coronation street and Eastenders.
However there‘s one genre she is reluctant to reveal — her own past.
Not because of any dark secrets, but because of the pain it brings. The effort in making choices about what to say and what should remain private, is a burden she’d rather not entertain. Also, frankly, it’s none of anyone’s business. And so I’m conditioned to not wanting to press.
It’s a weekend at my sisters, she’s in talkative mood as she makes her way from upstairs to kitchen two floors below. She starts to talk. But this time about her past. I can’t help it. I do something I’ve never done before, I press record on my Mac, audacity software.
Last year, unexpectedly Mum passed away. She was a fit 83-year old. My sisters and I reckoned she’d live past 100; her mum lived to 110-years old. I remember the recording I made of her about four years earlier and yesterday for the first time since her passing, and I think since recording it, I listened back.
It’s all there: the drama, pregnant pauses, characters and unabashed feelings about them, inflections for emphasis. She speaks briefly about her work as a nurse, how much she was liked, but how one nurse made her life “hell”.
She talks about her relationship with dad. They married in Ghana and came to the UK in the late 50s. There’s was a relationship worthy of a film; intense affection, and its cosine. Then the foster parents, one after another, my sibling and I endured. She all but gave me up for permanent adoption and then at the last minute changed her mind. She had to hoodwink the mother who’d become attached to me that she would go through with it; she just wanted to take me on a walk. She never took me back.
Listening back I’m full of admiration. Whilst there are sections that I just can’t share I wanted to broadly do so for several reasons.
My mother’s rich past mirrors that of several people I have spoken to. Why did I fail to capture hers? How could I have been more persuasive? My parent’s journey to the UK from Ghana, West Africa, was born out of a need to enrich themselves with knowledge and return to Ghana, which had just become independent of British colonial rule in 1957.
Ultimately they both achieved this, in some way, but the narrative and circumstances they found themselves in and the summoned strength to get themselves out, is something I crave to hear more.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to around 300 people and groups around the BLM movement. It’s important I said that we tell our stories. Remember Chinamande Ngozie–Addi’s brilliant TED talk “the danger of the single story”. You, your story, matters. It shapes our understanding, and of society. And it is not professionally mediated to suit someone’s narrative.
Our stories often intertwine, if we allow them. My mother’s stories about the NHS she worked for in the 70s adds texture to this institution’s collective memory. Without these stories of my mother, your mother, we’re disenfranchised from the past. Speculation and what the powerful who tell their stories says becomes the overriding narrative.
Then there’s the hidden veil of storytelling. My mother wasn’t a professional storyteller. I would become one, producing and reporting for the BBC and others. What separated us? Perhaps my knowing of the professional patterns of storytelling and the guidelines they adhere to. Perhaps too a suppression of personal feelings that go into reportage and a sense of the prose that yields drama. But then?
And then I think that my mother makes me question the veil that surrounds professional story tellers. That whatever I think, you think, your biases, moods etc shapes what you say. That black box that resides in all of us is a psychological mesh of wires susceptible to group similar stimuli. That in this short clip I’ve uploaded is an example, unrehearsed of meta storytelling. My mother helps me question reality.
I wish I’d pressed some more to hear about the past. I wish I’d read this years ago to know that I should have recorded my mother some more.
Here’s a snippet of that recording.