Katherine Russell Rich
Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Russell Rich
Scheherazade's Daughter
by Katherine Russell Rich

The best thing my mother ever did was to show me the transporting power of stories. She demonstrated this frequently, reflexively, being a natural storyteller, but certain occasions stand out.

Once, when I was about 10, my father began bringing home a business associate, a man unlike anyone in the neighborhood. In our straitening Philadelphia suburb, people were employed by the phone company or places called Amalgamated or, if they'd gone to private schools and came equipped with trust funds, as bouncers in a bar. But this man would come over and get in story matches with my mother: how he'd once escorted a girls' school to Europe on a cruise ship or how he'd broken every bone in his body riding a motorcycle cross-country or what kind of sparkling life he'd had working at a slick literary magazine, a copy of which was on the end table by his arm.

Even before he got to the motorcycle spill, a casual observer would have bet that my mother was outgunned. Her material was severely limited—just family. But she considered the man vanquished from the start, having become convinced after years away from her natal home that her family had been pillars of American culture, history, and warfare. It wasn't the particulars of their contributions that gave her the edge, though—for she rarely supplied any—but the assurance with which she told the family stories that pushed her to victory.

There was the one about my grandmother taking her friend Mrs. Musgrave into Washington, to the seamstress's. "When she picked her up," my mother said, "Mrs. Musgrave's husband ran out. 'That woman will try to tell you she doesn't have my pants,' he said. 'She'll say they're not ready yet. She always does. You tell her you know they are.' Well, they got to Washington, and the woman answered the door, and Mrs. Musgrave said, 'I've come for my husband's pants,' and sure enough, the woman claimed not to have them. 'He said you'd say that and I know it's not true,' Mrs. Musgrave said. 'Now, I want my husband's pants.' The woman got perfectly furious, insisted she most certainly did not have them. Mother looked up at the number on the house and saw she'd parked at the wrong door...."

My mother shifted positions to signal he'd been topped and by doing so, made it true.

They'd all drink and get flushed and funny, and by the time the scotch was more watery than oily, two things were clear. That my father's tight smile was meant to convey to the man that he'd gotten nowhere. That my mother thought she could, if she wanted, talk herself anywhere. It was only years on that I understood what even a casual observer might have guessed and, in this case, been right about: Because she did, my whole life, so have I.

Katherine Russell Rich is the author of The Red Devil: To hell with cancer and back and the bestselling Dreaming in Hindi: Coming awake in another language

More from Katherine Russell Rich: Turning a death sentence into a passport for life

The Next Great Moment in Mothering: Deborah Tannen on the ageless desire for approval


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