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April 12, 2010

I have just returned home after spending five weeks in Australia with my seriously ill mother. Having to leave her, not knowing if cancer will steal her away before I can see her again, just about broke my heart. Even though I’ve spent two-thirds of my life in the United States, my mother and I have been lucky enough to see each other frequently during those years and are used to the cycle of reunion and parting with its accompanying rollercoaster of emotion. But this time it was almost impossibly hard.

Despite being ill and in her eighties, my mother remains active, living alone and driving her car with confidence wherever she needs to go. If she had not been forced to conform to the demands of cancer, this latest visit, like all the others before it, would have been crammed with excursions to see old friends in Canberra and on the coast of south-eastern Australia where she used to live. This time, apart from the hours spent in doctors’ and pathologists’ offices and the days spent in the hospital recovering from surgery, we stayed close to home. Without the necessity to catch up on other people’s lives, we talked to each other. Or more accurately, while my mother talked, I listened.

She told the stories of her life. Born in England between the two great wars, my mother has traveled extensively and experienced a great deal, but the tales she most wanted to tell were not those of the world-changing events she has witnessed. Rather, they were those that, on the surface, might appear to be mundane but, when close attention is paid, reveal themselves to be extraordinary—the accounts of births and deaths, of love and loss that are so special because they are both universal and utterly unique.

The memories, most of them from her youth, that my mother felt compelled to dust off, hold up to the light and examine minutely, were those that held the keys to her own understanding of all that has gone into making her who she is. It would have been privilege enough to sit quietly and garner these insights into the complexity of my mother’s being, but, as I did so, I realized that I was being offered an added bonus: her stories were helping me to understand myself.

When I was a child, I loved to eavesdrop while she regaled her friends with tales of our family’s adventures on our back and forth journeys between Australia and England. In these last few weeks, as she repeated those stories—together with the ones about how she met and married my father and, less than two years later, became a widow before she knew she was to have a second child—I began to recognize the source of my own compulsion to be a storyteller.

In those early years, I absorbed without knowing it one of a novelist’s most fundamental lessons: never tell a dull story. My mother’s anecdotes are bountiful with all the colorful characterization and background detail necessary to keep a listener wanting to know what will happen next. And when she has finished telling it, however triumphant or tragic the ending may turn out to be, you can be sure to be satisfied that it was a good story.

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