On our weekly-ish call, my mother recounted recent travesties befalling someone from my hometown. I didn’t recognize the name. “Who?” I questioned. “For Pete’s sakes, Benji Sanders,” she responded. “Never heard of him,” I said, “and, please, say no more. Only people close to poor Benji should be privy to this.” “Don’t be ridiculous,” she countered. “Y’all were inseparable.”
These discrepant memories of my past aren’t unusual. Mother says she welcomed my fanciful fashions; patience and silence were her strategies for my poor choices in romantic partners; and I loved summer day camp. In each case, my memory is different. Nonetheless, memory is a tricky vehicle, so I usually let these discrepancies pass.
For some reason, I couldn’t let this fictional friendship fly. “I have never met Benji Sanders. I’m sorry for his troubles and will send positive thoughts his way. I’ll also hope his actual friends – past and present – are notified of his situation and help accordingly. What else has been going on?” Mother was undone. Her story of Benji’s woe untold, she said she had to go. And it hit me . . . we get so caught up in the story we want to tell, we miss chances to write new ones in the here and now with people right in front of us.
When I was in academia, I had a well-meaning, self-appointed mentor who relished giving me “feedback.” After one particularly contentious faculty meeting, she arrived at my office with her critique of my participation. Usually, I listened, sorting through what was relevant and what was projection. Occasionally, I silently made grocery lists. But this day I said, “Oh thanks. I said just what I wanted to say. No need for feedback.” She sputtered, “but I’ve got suggestions and ways you can –” “I’m good. Thanks anyway.” It took some back-and-forth, but eventually she left. Soon after she found a new mentee more suited for a big career in academe. I was dropped like a hot potato and everyone was happier. Still, I wonder if we could have found friendship as colleagues had her model not been so tied to roles and scripts.
I don’t have to worry about dropping or being dropped by my mother. She knows plenty of my past and present friends, even if she occasionally inserts fictional ones. Plus, our stories from the past don’t exclude our ability to write new ones. But I’m struck by the tenacious allure of sticking to the story we want to tellversus the making shared meanings. It would be so easy if we settled down long enough to notice. Letting go of a really good tale is hard, but there’s lots of gain if we do. Here’s to writing new stories, together.