As a kid growing up, I knew that mothers weren’t all the same. But it took me a while to realize how unusual my own mother was. As “the only child of two only children,” she insisted on a larger-than-average family; I’m the youngest of six. To help support us, she held a full-time job from the time I was three years old; my friend’s mothers didn’t work outside the home until they were in high school. But the main thing that made my mother different was the family culture that developed with her at the head. Looking back, I realize just how much that culture prepared me to be a writer.
We were a family of readers. This isn’t unusual. Like many families, we had a weekly trip to the library and read-aloud stories each night. But reading wasn’t just for certain times of day. Books, magazines, and newspapers covered the tables in the living room. If anyone had a few minutes without something to do, they’d read. And woe to the sibling who lost someone else’s place in a book. That was an affront punishable by chasing, threatening, and bopping on the head–with the book.
Adults and children used the same vocabulary. Perhaps it was because, as an only child, my mother was surrounded by adults when she was growing up, and they spoke to her the same way they spoke to each other. Perhaps it was because both of our parents had extensive lexicons, and used them, and we didn’t want to be left out of their conversations. Whatever the reason, we used words far beyond the grade-appropriate vocabulary lists at school.
Imagination trumped orderliness. My sister and I would build whole towns out of cardboard, populate them with toys, and act out the lives of the villagers. We’d leave these creations in place for a week or two, building them out until they covered the floor of our room, taping things to the hardwood to make them stand up. I was shocked to learn that my friends’ mothers made them put everything away at the end of every day. Once a week or so, my mother asked, “Are you finished with that game yet? If not, I’ll leave it.”
We watched stories on television. I hesitate to include this, because too much screen time is not good for anyone. But it played its part. When my husband was a young teen, his mother paid a repairman to make the television stop working. When I was a young teen, my mother brought me dinner on a tray so I could watch Star Trek in syndication. To my mom, it was all fodder for our imaginations. But we didn’t just consume. We critiqued the shows, the characters, the plausibility of the plots, the careers of the actors, the artistic merits of the animations. We rooted out the storyline formulas that made sitcoms so predictable. Yes, we did this ourselves, but I’m pretty sure our mother got us started. Her father was an English professor, so she cut her teeth on literary analysis. She also had an insider’s understanding of theater. More about that later.
Our family had Characters. I don’t mean family characters like your crazy old Uncle Bernie. I mean whole suites of Characters and settings that we’d play-act at the drop of a hat. There were the Horse characters, the Walruses, the Birds we made with our hands and animated with their own cartoon-character voices, the unfortunate orphans living by their wits, and characters I can’t even remember. We all knew the characters we played, what they liked, what they didn’t, and how they’d react to events. Our stories were only loosely plotted. Sometimes our characters surprised us, doing or saying something unexpected and hilarious that took the story in a new direction. I was thrilled when that happened, it was a kind of fun nothing else could give. I suppose most children play make believe, but we kept it up for a couple of decades. One time my brother, home from college and bored, turned my high school reading assignment—Ionesco’s absurdist play “Rhinoceros”—into reader’s theater. We took parts and read the entire play as if our Walrus characters were performing it. Homework should always be this much fun!
Did our mother play Characters with us? No, but she encouraged it, and she loved our improvised stories. She was intensely proud that we enjoyed entertaining ourselves with nothing but our own imaginations. Didn’t all mothers feel this way? Not really, no. At the time, child-rearing experts advised parents to discourage make-believe play as soon as their children started grade school, otherwise they wouldn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Mom openly scorned this advice. “Of course children know the difference!” she’d say. “I knew the difference when I was a child.” She still knew the difference when she grew up, went to acting school, and had a brief career on stage. Come to think of it, our mother’s early career as a stage actress surely played a part in our own creation of characters. (Pun intended—but I get the puns from my father.)
I haven’t blogged in recent months. I’ve been in the writer’s cave with a YA novel. I have a whole suite of characters. I know what they like, what they don’t, how they’ll react to events. A novel isn’t a child’s make-believe game, so I have a plot to follow. But sometimes my characters surprise me, doing or saying something unexpected, moving themselves and the story in new directions. When that happens, my brain lights up with the same kind of joy I felt as a child, playing Characters with my sisters and brothers.
My mother died a year or two after I started writing children’s fiction. I had multiple projects started and she read them all, providing valuable feedback and critiques that were definitely NOT what people think of when you say “my mother liked it.” My current work in progress was her favorite. Like most first novels, it spent years in a drawer while I honed my skills on shorter works. I promised Mom I’d finish it, and now I’m almost there.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those creative moms out there!
Thanks to my sister Leslie for the pictures.
 Yes our father was involved too, but our mother was the main influence on the family. Besides, this is a Mother’s Day post.
 My husband and his brother figured out how to fix the television, so the episode contributed to their problem-solving skills. Today, my husband can binge-watch with the best, while I prefer television in limited doses.
 Doug, you swore me to secrecy about our family’s characters when you were twelve and I was seven. I assume the statute of limitations has run out!