This piece originally aired in February 2008 on WMUB-FM (Oxford, Ohio). I have been thinking about it since my mom’s death earlier this month. Her birthday anniversary coincided with Thanksgiving again this year. Listening to this audio essay ten years later, I’m so glad we had this celebration.
It is dedicated to all our imperfect loves.
It Had to Be You
My mother celebrated her seventieth birthday this past Thanksgiving and, since I knew it might get lost in all the turkey and pumpkin pie, I decided to throw her a surprise party the week before.
Now I know what they say, surprise parties are acts of aggression. Maybe it’s true: you come home one dark night and before you can flip a switch, an unseen hand does it for you.
You are blinded by light. Panic and shock give way to the joy of seeing old friends. They laugh at you (or is it with you?) and then shower you with cake and presents.
When one of my mother’s friends calls to RSVP, she tells me that she hopes our party will not cause my mom to have a second heart attack.
I have my reasons for this act of aggression, kind as it may be. If left to my mom, her birthday party would never happen. “Why should people come all this way for my birthday?” I can imagine her saying. “It’s no big deal.”
But it is a big deal. To mark having come so far. To be with those she cares about. A thought, unsummoned, enters my mind: I don’t want this gathering to wait until her funeral.
In addition to surviving my teenage years, my mother has recently survived a mild heart attack and breast cancer, undergoing surgery (twice), chemotherapy, and radiation. These days, she is doing okay and her cancer in remission. I hope she has many, many more birthdays, but looking at pictures from the past three years I am struck by how quickly she has aged and I think, this is not a time to procrastinate.
So I send out invitations. We’ll meet at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, serenade her, eat an elegant lunch at Puck’s restaurant, and then go on a guided tour. All she knows is that she and I are going to have a little mother-daughter time at the IMA.
When we get to the museum I claim I need to pick up a brochure. We walk down a hallway and then turn the corner.
“Oh,” she says. She takes a couple steps back. She calls out people’s names. The force of the surprise, the emotion it unleashes, causes her to cry. I have never seen her so happy.
On cue, the tenor from the barbershop quartet Smilin’ Through blows his pitch pipe, and we all sing “Happy Birthday.”
Strangers stop by to listen to the music. They look at my mom and grin. Then the quartet sings, “It Had To Be You.” And I realize what a perfect song for the imperfect love between two people. Especially the lines:
For nobody else, gave me a thrill
With all your faults, I love you still
It had to be you, wonderful you
It had to be you.
Wouldn’t it be great if the afterlife were like a surprise party? You turn the corner and there they all are: your friends, your crazy cousin, your first boss, and your kids. Beaming. Here just for you. And then a man you’ve never seen before steps up and blows his pitch pipe. And they all begin to sing…”It Had To Be You.”
One of the things I love about stories is that they can help us explore liminal moments in our lives from the relative safety of a seat on the bus or while propped up in bed. Quest narratives allow us to cross over from adolescence to adulthood without actually getting singed from a dragon’s fiery breath. (Though memories of the middle school cafeteria may give a dragon a run for his money!) Stories that transport us across seven seas in seven ships can give us courage while we make our own journeys to a new home, heal a broken relationship, or enter a new phase of life. Myths, fairy tales and other stories of the “folk” can shine a light on the path we choose to follow–even when it’s a path that leads from one life to the next.
Here is one such story about a woman named Tía Miseria who thumbs her nose at death and, by doing so, brings something unexpected into the world. It is a story about a feisty, unconventional woman that I love to tell! My version here is based closely on the ones told by Harlynne Geisler and Olga Loya.
Once, when I told “Tía Miseria” to an audience of students at Earlham School of Religion and Bethany Theological Seminary, one seminarian named Andrew drew a picture while I told the story. Later he shared it with me. Rendered in colored pencil, a lone, naked figure embraces a bare tree whose branches extend into a sky of swirling rainbow colors. One word is written in between the tree’s roots: misery.
“Miseria” can be translated as “misery,” but I like to think that it is also closely related to “misericor’dia,” or “mercy.” In Andrew’s stunning picture, just as in the folktale itself, we are not given answers. Instead, we are asked to think about the nature of misery, the place of mercy, and the relationship that can spring up between the two. The story itself becomes a tree of mercy, offering shelter while we try to puzzle out lives that may feel like equal parts of bizarre comedy and mundane tragedy. I like to think Tía Miseria is sitting under the tree with us, too, ready to hand over the perfectly ripe pear.
That is, as long as we ask politely.
*If you are having trouble with the media player, you may also listen to it here.
I’ve got a bad case of storylove.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I was introduced to storytelling in library school and immediately was smitten. Upon graduating, I began working as elementary school librarian where I had a built-in and enthusiastic audience. This was a great training ground for learning and practicing a variety of stories.
During this time, I was also introduced to biblical storytelling. It became a bridge for me to explore telling stories to adults. These days I work as a reference/theological librarian and have had many rewarding experiences telling sacred stories to members of the Earlham College community.
For the past ten years, I have given workshops for educators, college students, lay people, and clergy interested in telling stories themselves. I have also been expanding my practice of storytelling to include solo performance and radio essays. I am excited about my latest storytelling project, Rivertown Dispatch–and how it allows me to explore the very nature of storytelling.
To me some of the most magical words remain: “Once upon a time….”