Sophia, my father, and I are sitting on the shiny leather couch in my father’s living room. It is the only thing that shines here. Everything else seems dulled with age or dust or by the dim light that filters through the shaded windows, barely illuminating the room. It’s just enough light for us to make out the pictures in the book he’s holding, a children’s story about an anxious lemur. But it’s not the plot that is lulling both Sophie and I into a fairytale stupor. It’s my father’s voice.
My father has a magical storytelling voice. In conversation, he is halting and gruff, but when he’s sharing a narrative, his voice takes on a tender, mellifluous tone that has never failed to soothe me into a pleasant plane that is neither sleep nor consciousness. A place where, even as cold as the room is now, feels dreamy and warm. Like Hans Christen Anderson’s Matchstick Girl. Each story is a flame that gives off a gentle heat. Sophie’s eyes are glazed and I know that she is experiencing just what I am, what I always have, whenever my father became the version of his self that I loved best and told me a story.
Like the time I was in the hospital, having my appendix out. I was fourteen and terrified. We already had entered a deeply strained period in our relationship. When, what seemed like every night, both of us argued to be right, for the sake of being right. A know-it-all teenager and her know-it-all dad. Arguments that would devolve into swearing and demands to heed the Ten Commandments. Or rather, one in particular.
Honor thy mother and father.
But not that night. That night he stayed with me and in half a hospital room he told me stories from his childhood, growing up on the lower-east side of Manhattan. Sharing a bed in a crowded tenement with his twin-brother. The cockroaches that plagued him and still haunt his dreams. The pickles sold out of a barrel on the street for just a nickel. The true story behind why he never went back to Yeshiva after the first day. His stories allowed me to let of my angry teenager and to be his daughter again. The daughter, I’m sure, he missed.
My mother is also a formidable storyteller in her own right. She grabs you by the hand and drags you right into her story with her. Fiction or fact—her stories are vivid and alive. You are surrounded by her characters as she becomes each one in voice and expression. This is not acting. It is possession. The sheer power of her voice pulls you forward, along with her…running through her invented world, oblivious to whatever it is that actually surrounds you.
It is the combination of my father’s capacity to generate rich imagery, his ability to lend a transportive quality to an ordinary tale, for he is an expert escapist, and my mother’s energy and expressiveness that has infected me with the storytelling bug. A bug I am hoping to pass along to Sophie.
I began with familiar stories, changing a detail or two to locate Sophia within the tale: “Sophielocks and the Three Bears” or “Sophie and the Magic Porridge Pot,” for example. Sophia quickly realized the power of fiction. She understood she could go anywhere, do anything, interact with anyone under the guise of a story. At the center of her favorite fictions, she was no longer a helpless toddler needing to be washed, dressed, fed and brushed. She was empowered. A heroine.
It wasn’t long before she was asking me to make up stories that incorporated her favorite character. “Mommy! Tell me the story of Sophia and Curious George go to the Dentist... Tell me the Story of Sophia and Curious George go to the Zoo... Tell me the story of Sophia and Curious George Go To Wegmans and Curious George eats a fake [display] Banana.”
“Okay.” I say, and I launch into the requested fable, adding a new embellishment each time for my own entertainment. In these stories she is naughty, pays for her misdeeds and is redeemed. It is a subtle, gentle way in which I hope to impart a sense of morality, respect for others, and an ethical impulse. Story is our religion. It is a place where we can talk about the most difficult things on the most basic of levels.
She listens gravely in a way that is distinctly different from real life, when I tell her to apologize for a wrongdoing or express gratitude for a right. These days, most directives are met with a blasé, tuned out, “What?” But when I tell a story she is rapt, hanging on every word, jumping in if I miss a detail, inserting “mommy” if I leave myself out. What she resists or rejects as we go about the daily business of our lives, she readily accepts in our virtual world.
And so, when she asks, I tell her a story.
It is our deepest form of communication.
It is our common ground.
It is place where, by pretending, we don’t have to pretend at all.
And is the legacy of love that my parents handed down to me.