|Council Bluffs, Iowa, where I grew up.|
Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner and Eudora Welty are famous for crediting their relatives with front-porch storytelling that inspired them to write fiction. But the families and neighbors of those literary giants had nothing over the group of housewives around my mother’s kitchen table.
In the afternoon, Mom’s girlfriends would drop by for coffee. Marguerite Dingman always parked in front of the house, where her car stuck out into the traffic on Highway 64. Marguerite had a strong and delightful rebel streak. As trucks whizzed past inches from her car, she hurried unconcerned toward our front door. I’ll never forget her lipstick, hot red and, like her, glamorous.
At the same time, Maxine Mether walked up the block. Maxine was an über mom, deeply involved with her two little boys, and very kind. And then there was gorgeous Vernelle Lainson, smart and chatty. She came down the hill from next door. Greeting all was my mother, Marian Hallenbeck, tall and striking, with a great heart.
|Mom's photo, from newspaper|
The inviting aroma of Maxwell House would fill our kitchen. The colorful melamine cups and saucers would come out, the girlfriends would sit, and what they called gossip would begin. I was often there, too, listening and drinking Pepsi from a 16-ounce glass bottle. I was the eldest of all their children, and they found my curiosity amusing. In truth, I was in training.
With a simple trip downtown to run errands, they’d bring back tales: The grocer’s wife who’d run away with the postman. Very racy. The city councilman arrested for embezzlement. How could he. The local jewelry store robbed by out-of-town gangsters who later turned up dead in Lincoln, Nebraska. The worst (and most exciting) story of the year.
They argued politics, discussed home cures, and exchanged theories of child rearing. Nothing was sacred, including religion. When someone was sick or died, they baked casseroles and spent hours on the phone, listening to each other’s pain, reminding each other that tomorrow could be a better day.
It was an era abundant with something we seem to lack in our modern era — time. Time to build deep friendships based on the intimacy of the day to day. Time that seemed to stretch ahead unchanging, giving life a certainty that allowed the focus to be on now.
At every coffee klatch there were new stories, new details for ongoing stories, and stories coming to a close. The coffee pot perked. The trucks swerved. And the girls talked.
I was riveted by the rise and fall of their voices, the intensity of their gestures and postures. They told the tales and reacted at the same time, simultaneously writers and readers. Every story came with something to hold on to, to learn, to care about, to remember.
As the years passed, the lines on their faces deepened. Their eyes faded and softened. Their insights grew. And their stories continued. . . .
Until a few years ago. All are dead now, alas, but I can conjure them up in a heartbeat. As I write my books, I hear their voices in my mind. Very racy. How could he. The worst (and most exciting) story of the year. Your turn, Gayle. Tell a story.
Now I understand this is the spine of life, as true today as it was then. We still tell each other stories. In Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest and Skype, we harvest the past and plow into the future. Although I spent far more years as a journalist, editor, and writer than I spent in childhood, my life as an author was settled here, at my mother’s kitchen table.