Every childhood has characters who tower and glow. Parents, older siblings, firefighters, kings and queens are visions of order and love, playmates and rivals, the futures of which we dream. Waltzing among them are the heroes of childhood stories: Cinderella and her fairy godmother, Jack and his beanstalk, Snow White and (can you name them still?) her seven dwarfs.
Yet mythic figures have always seemed strange to me, imposing and remote. They plod through dark forests and roam over mountains folded in the pages of dark, heavy books. Their voices are loud and low, their beards are bristly. Their footsteps shake the world, and their stories make me wince.
Sharing this conviction, my mother read us fairy tales with reluctance. She hesitated at stories of old peasants shoving children into ovens, helpless women trapped in towers or always waiting for their princes. For the most part, Grimms' fairy tales sat dusty on our shelves, and the stories my brothers and I liked best had no ogres, no wicked stepmothers, no poisoned apples or ravenous wolves.
I loved realistic stories of children: Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie," Beverly Cleary's Ramona books; the Gilbreths' adventures in "Cheaper by the Dozen." But most of all, I loved the stories of my own childhood, the anecdotes my mother told about my brothers and me. From our mother, we heard tales of ourselves and of each other, stories in which we became the heroes of our own lives. We laughed at our antics, watched her marvel in memory of our clever comments from the day, the month, or the year before.
The stories were always true, yet in my mother's voice our lives took on the grandeur of legends and lore. With the hush and humor of the telling, our lives became brilliant, monumental. Our home could seem a castle, our neighborhood a province as grand as any magical forest or royal realm.
My mother tells these stories still: my brother Steven, five years old, replying to an adult who complimented him on his manners, "Why thank you! My manners are just impeccable!"; Michael, at 3, asking my mother for a kettle and a bell in an antique shop, so that he might stand outside Macy's like the Salvation Army, collecting money for new Legos; me, at 6, holding my own in arguments with my brothers by announcing, "I don't argue with people who are wrong."
My mother trots out these stories for friends, neighbors, dates, and still I flush with pride. My life is separate from me, somehow, when told in her voice. I am legendary, her little girl, the hero of a moment 15 years old.
My mother's stories are not ancient, ancestral, or supernatural; her characters, taken beyond the familial realm, are not heroic. Her stories do not explain the natural world, but they try, I think, to define our place in it - or at least to assure us that we have a place. Told in my mother's voice, they place us in her world and in one another's; and it is from this shared world of childhood that life emerges.
It may seem vain to love the stories of oneself. But we search for heroes we believe in, heroes we can imagine as ourselves. And this, I think, is why I listened, and why I still secretly love to hear them. They are how our mother made us the confident heroes of our own young lives.
Our childhood selves live on through these stories, and my brothers and I are the friendliest giants I know. We climb over pillow-fort mountains on soft blue carpet and roam through the caves of my mother's memory, immortal, invincible, heroes of our time.