In Need of a Story
About ten years ago, my husband’s grandmother, Lillian, passed away at the age of 101. Granny “B” as most everyone called her was a petite and charming woman who had difficulty with the realities of having more checks in her check book than money in the bank, and who could go toe-to-toe with the very opinionated men in her family with aplomb. One of the most delightful things that could happen during a visit with her was to be treated to a story of her past, before electricity, before penicillin, or during the last years of her long nursing career. She did not retire until the age of 80. Her wealth was in her stories and the memories she happily shared.
More than the stories themselves, what I found so fascinating was the way her face changed in the remembering. Instead of looking at her listeners she looked deep inside herself, and at the people with whom she shared time who returned to walk with her in that inner landscape. There are times when I really miss those stories as much as I miss the woman. I was reminded of her recently by virtue of a book
At the end of January, I was sick with the creeping crud that was floating around the office. Other than my blanket and pillow all I wanted a book that was easy to hold since every movement was an effort. I wanted to escape to somewhere else in order to take my mind off my swollen throat, throbbing head, labored breathing and a nose that had more drips than my 8th grade class. I tried to summon one of Granny’s stories. It wouldn’t come. I would have been happy if someone had read me a story. No one did. I realized if I wanted the comfort of a story, I would have to read it myself.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See was waiting patiently on my nightstand. This book had been on my “want to read” list for months. It had been highly recommended by friends whose opinions I trust. So when my son and daughter-in-law gave me the book for my birthday I was jubilant at having received such a splendid gift.
It wasn’t long after that Nicki Leone of “A Reading Life” reviewed the book. I enjoy Nicki’s reviews a great deal and because of them I’ve read books I might not otherwise have considered reading at all. I love it when my horizons expand. She had found it disappointing, the lack of emotion by the book’s main character being the primary reason. That Saturday morning, needing and wanting a story, I found myself dreading starting the book for fear that I, too, would be disappointed.
The story is told from the perspective of an 80-year-old woman. In the time of Lily, the teller of the saga, to live 80 years was to live almost twice as long as most everyone else. It was the story of two girls’ friendship, their lives they lived, their times and how they became the women they did. I found it powerful. Emotion ran like an undercurrent fed by my own feelings after reading what it was like for them to have their feet bound at age six. The horror and the terror almost softened by memory, was all the more powerful when told through the distance of time. The way this story was constructed allowed me to “become” Lily and almost to feel what it was like to live such an abusive and restricted life in Chinese society at that time. I came to understand the resignation she learned in order to insure her survival—not only were women’s feet bound, but the majority of their lives were restricted to an upper room and the outside world was viewed from an upper window. From birth women were told they were worthless unless they could carry on the family name by becoming a broodmare of sons. This brilliantly painted narrative had the desired effect. I read with rapt absorption for hours, sleeping and reading and sleeping again, the story taking me through the worst hours of the flu.
Unlike Nicki, I was not the least bit disappointed in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I enjoyed the telling of the story through the eyes of an old woman who had lived her life and had nothing more to leave her family than tales of her life and times.
While the family matriarch in the book and the matriarch of my husband’s family lived entirely different lives with entirely different purposes, they each survived their friends, many of their children and history. They each lived far longer than expected. The patina of time and distance colored their accounts in the same way time influences the color and shading of copper. The story stays with me long after the covers have been closed and the book was passed on to share. Sharing such a story is one of the most satisfying things I can do, and when it returns to me I will read it again.
At age 10, Anne realized she was never going to get to be Miss America since reading a book was not an acceptable talent. So she went on to get a job and raise a family. Along the way, she fixed meals, picked up toys, helped with homework, and collected a drawer full of rejection slips for her “great American novel.” It was not all bad, however, since she ended up wallpapering a closet with them. She currently designs and creates greeting cards for her tiny company, The Frog Prints, LLC, and also works full-time as a Training Specialist. Anne is currently tethered to reality by a loving spouse, two dogs, one cat and the occasional hurricane that blows through Florida, although falling headlong and happily into a book is still her favorite “talent.” She can be reached at