All immigrants are storytellers because stories are the only things small enough to travel across oceans, to slip past security, to carry under fingernails and in old jacket pockets.
Everything I know of South Africa was birthed from my parents’ mouths: My father’s family trips to the beach. His mother handing out sandwiches to the four kids in the backseat. Coke in real glass bottles. The talent show no one could pull him away from. My mother’s walks home from school. How she imagined the lives people lived in their homes as she trekked past them, smelled the fruit trees growing in their gardens. She ate chips from the local burger place—smothered in salt and vinegar—on the sidewalk, in no hurry to make it home. My father’s Sunday lunches. Tables full of kibbeh and hummus, rice and roast chicken. Aunts and uncles and cousins I would never get to meet.
Of course, my parents were lucky. They did not have to pare their stories down to fit a foreign language, to slice nuance off like chicken fat. My grandmother’s parents came to Africa from Greece and still I only have fragments of what they knew and how they lived.
Stories can be weaved into a life like a patch on jeans. To cover up a lack. Consider this: the winter another family paid for our Christmas, my mother told us it was because they visited our school and saw how well-behaved we were. We were special. Good listeners. Kind children.
Consider all the summers my mother told us we didn’t need to go to camp or daycare. How she invented freedom for us: library books and endless hours of TV. How we were never jealous of the other kids. That unlucky bunch, whisked away to early mornings and new sets of rules.
Consider the ramen my mother deemed feast. How even now, my mouth waters at the thought of shredded cheese and ketchup. Look how powerful a story can be.
Of course, all mothers are storytellers. Children shrug off rules like church clothes, but stories stick. Old wives’ tales gather like burdocks to wool.
I still bristle at strange men because of my mother’s stories. Children grabbed in malls. Heads shaved in dirty bathrooms. Little girls tricked by phantom dogs or the promise of candy. It’s better just to stay away.
My mother did not have to warn me not to do drugs. Instead, she told me stories about her sister. Her and her friends passed out in the living room. Phone calls about overdoses. My baby cousin screaming somewhere in an orphanage, begging for a mother who could not hear her over the fog of barbiturates.
On the playground, children passed around their mothers’ stories like common colds: the whisper of a boy who drank lake water and died, rumors of pregnant girls with bellies rounded like fruit, hushed fears of military school, a punishment for those who did not behave.
If you tell a story well enough, people will begin to tell it for you.
When my mother got sick, life began to demand stories like an angry prince, like a hungry mouth. We told stories with conviction and detail, hoping that—if we made them intricate, believable—death might forget itself long enough to spare her one more day.
We answered that dark void in full.
You can imagine an entire life if you want it badly enough. My mother told me stories about her turning seventy. She painted wrinkles onto her not-yet-fifty face. She dreamt up retirement and a garden full of trees and flowers. If you listened closely enough, you could almost forget the hospital, the tangles of cords rooting her to machines.
Even now, my mother is teaching me to write stories. To weave the rustle of trees into a song from her. To fasten a metaphor to each bird that lands outside my window.
My mother teaches me to tell stories in a bar bathroom. At a job interview. In the mirrored square of a changing room. She asks again and again to be retold. Brought to life. Resurrected through memory and imagery.
My mother teaches me to tell stories in the middle of the night. When I can’t fall asleep. When grief is an unbelieving audience. When I have almost forgotten how to summon her. She nestles her way into the grooves of my tongue and speaks.
Jade Sham is a recent graduate of Kenyon College, originally from Texas and currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has previously been featured in Under the Gum Tree.