Storyteller

January 12, 2016

My mom was a storyteller. Of all her stories, one of my favorites was her riff about the irate parent and the French class. It goes like this.

A devoted lifelong grade school teacher, my mom loved her kids. “It’s the adults I have a hard time with,” she confided to me more than once.

One day she was hearing out a parent who was complaining bitterly about the fact that her fifth-grade kid was learning French. (Why this was a problem, who knows.) At the height of the conversation, more a monologue, really, the parent uttered a line which my mother secretly found so hilarious that she could not wait till the end of the school day, when we would ride home together in the car, so she could tell me about it:

“If English was good enough for Jesus Christ,” the irate parent exclaimed, “it’s good enough for me!”

To this day, I do not know how my mother managed to keep a straight face.

One year, when I was ten or so, I asked her if she would read to me. Specifically, if she would read me Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Every night, before I went to sleep, she’d sit on the side of my bed and read another chapter. I don’t know who enjoyed themselves more, her or me, and I don’t know how long it took. In my memory it stretched on, deliciously, for months.

She read it to me in English, of course (the Fitzgerald translation), not in the original Greek.

But hey, I told myself wickedly, if English was good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for me!

My mother was also a passionate student of Greek mythology and all things Greek. One year she organized a trip of students, a dozen or so, to Greece for a few weeks. Late one afternoon she hiked with her kids up the famous hill in the midst of Athens to visit the Acropolis and its crowning structure, the Parthenon (the great temple to Athena built by Pericles, the “first citizen of Athens”).

As they sat on a ridge of ruins viewing the Parthenon, one of the students said, “Mrs. Mann, can you tell us the one about…?” and asked her about one of the hundreds of Greek myths she loved so much. Dusk was approaching and she knew they had to leave soon. Just one, she thought, and told the story. Which prompted a second student to ask about another myth. Which she told. And then another. As the sun slipped below the horizon, she told story after story.

Finally, she decided it was really time to leave. She stood up, so did the students. They turned around —

And found themselves looking at a crowd of thirty, forty people, maybe more — all of whom had arrived and sat, still and quiet as the Parthenon itself, entranced. Listening to the stories.

It was only when my mom stood that they broke into hushed applause, and then all quietly decamped, leaving the Parthenon and the Greek full moon to enjoy each other in solitude.

Mom believed passionately that the best way to teach young children was through drama. Throughout her career, she directed her kids in dozens of theatrical productions, and wrote quite a few plays herself.

Storyteller becomes playwright.

A few years later, when I was thirteen, she organized a second Greece trip for the purpose of putting on a production of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. This was now 1967, not the most peaceful of times in that land, which was in the middle of a military coup d’état. I still don’t know how she pulled that one off, but to Greece we went, and returned, without incident.

We spent time in Athens, Mykonos and various islands, then up north to Kalambaka and Delphi, where we executed the whole purpose of the trip: in the ancient stone amphitheater at Epidaurus, we performed the Aeschylus play. We were told that this was the exact spot where it was given its premier performance, nearly 2,500 years earlier. It was an electrifying, life-changing experience.

A few months earlier, in preparation for the trip, my mom had decided that some of the choruses should be set to music. She asked me to do it.

“Compose original music for Aeschylus choruses?!” I protested. “I’m thirteen! I can’t do that!”

She said, “Sure you can.”

So I did. It was my first musical composition, and we performed the choruses at Epidaurus as part of our little production.

I went on (thanks to her) to pursue a career in composition. Later on that turned into a career (thanks to her) in writing.

Composer becomes writer. I guess her love of storytelling rubbed off.

My mom did not live to see the publication of The Go-Giver, succumbing to cancer more than a decade before it appeared. She would have gotten the biggest kick out of the fact that we dubbed our mentor “Pindar” (that being the name of the greatest of the nine ancient Greek lyric poets). She would have gotten an even bigger kick out of seeing the Hermes icon on the book’s front jacket. And she would have loved seeing Arianna Huffington’s name on the cover of the new “expanded” edition. (Arianna, after all, is as Greek as Greek can be — born in Athens, not far from the Parthenon!)

At first, I was sad she was not here to see it. Over the years, though, my view on that has changed. It has become clearer to me that just because she isn’t right here, the way you and I are right here, doesn’t mean she doesn’t know all about it.

And I’ve come to this sense, too:

Wherever she is now, and whatever form or substance that world looks like, I expect she is busily engaged telling stories to a little group huddled around her — and that there is a much vaster group, unseen and unheard behind her, in rapt attention.

The body, like the temples of Pericles, thrives for a time and then fades.

The storyteller is forever.

 

8 Comments

  1. Of all the amazing posts, articles, and books you’ve ever written, I think that this tribute to your Mom is the greatest of them all! And I believe that she and your Dad (to whom you’ve also written beautiful tributes) are smiling down upon you and (if I may use a non-Greek saying), “kvelling wit naches,” which means bursting with pride/joy.

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  2. Just awesome John, and yes, Bob said it all. How proud your parents are of you and all you have accomplished.

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  3. Your mom was very good to me. A huge sorrow in my life is that I disappointed her. God speed Mrs. Mann.

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    • So good to hear from you, Deborah, and thank you for your sweet comment. And please — let yourself off the hook on that one. We were all so young and … I don’t want to say “…and stupid,” so I’ll say, “… and struggling to figure out what the heck we were doing with our lives!”

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  4. Hey John, As you can imagine, this post is extremely meaningful to me since I was on that second trip to Greece. Whose idea was it to make the masks that we took along for the performance? I’d love to connect with you sometime to get any details or pictures you have for that trip. It was an incredible experience, and I owe a great debt to your mom for making it all happen.

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    • Hi Ruth! Ah, those papier-mache masks … I think those were my mom’s idea. (Or maybe Mrs. Bicknell’s?) So, so great to hear from you! I wish I had more pictures — I think I have one, possibly two. The rest, all in neurons and synapses…

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  5. John, I’m new to your blog, but fell in love with this post. What a wonderful tribute to your mother and to the eternal spirit of the storyteller.

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    • Thanks, Kent – and I appreciate your correspondence and hunger to catch the magic in a bottle! It’s a fascinating quest…

      Reply

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