“Our girl is here!” Gwen says the instant I walk in the door. And Larla, Gwen’s ninety-five year old mother, turns to greet me. Her gray eyes are so crammed now with the past there’s almost no room for the present, but she gives me a questioning smile. “We love her,” Gwen says matter-of-factly, patting her mom’s shoulder as I stoop to give her my arrival kiss. “I love you hon,” Larla says in the faded voice I know well, and pats my hand in her brisk way. “We’re glad you came to see us.” And finally, with another glance at Gwen, she nods as if she has decided for sure and turns to look me straight in the eye: “You’re our girl.”
Those words are a small miracle to me. I visit Kentucky only twice a year, once when the dogwoods are skirted in pink, and once in the fire of fall. It’s rare I can visit in between, and while Gwen has known me from birth, Larla hasn’t. I’m not, as they say in those Kentucky hills, “kin.” I’m just an occasional visitor. Yet Larla, even with Alzheimer’s disease, has never forgotten me. Each time I come, she knows me afresh. Some part of her retains its hold on who I am and the fact that she loves me.
I was marveling at this again last week during my spring visit and decided one morning to write about it. Larla sat next to me at the breakfast table patting my left hand as I used my right to jot random musings whenever I got the chance. Gwen was in and out with eggs and orange juice and I was in search of the perfect word, my mind working to the rhythmic clatter of frying pans, when Gwen called to her mom from the kitchen, “Aren’t we glad our girl Sarah came to visit?”
And in that instant, the mystery cleared. Something about having my pen in hand helped me to see what was going on. Larla knew me because I had been told into her story. Gwen, I realized, is a narrator. The moment I walk in the door, Gwen begins to tell me into the story of her own life and that of her mom’s. Word by word, statement by statement, with comments about “our girl Sarah,” and “how much we love her,” she narrates my presence into her mother’s life. Larla never has a chance to forget me. Gwen sets the scene by helping Larla to greet me, she tells the history of my visits as a tiny girl, and moves her story forward with constant affirmations of how lovely a thing it is to have me there.
Gwen has used her words to frame me into belonging. It is storytelling at its most real. It is narrative at its highest power of love. As an author, I am keenly aware of the power of narrative. I struggle so often to get just the right words in place when I attempt to describe a character, because I am aware that the voice of the narrator tells a reader exactly what to think of any character. A reader’s affection or disgust for any book person is based on the words in which they are framed. Narration is a form of creative power.
What Gwen has helped me to see is that this power is present in the real life, workaday world as well as the novel. Here we are, all of us telling stories about each other every day. I am beginning to understand how much our relationships are formed by the narrative of our conversations; our spoken affection or disgust, our gossip (or hopefully, lack of it), our love when it spills into speech. All of it helping to form the stories of the people around us. In this light, the power of a word like “welcome” is as good as “once upon a time,” because it flings open a new door to the possibility of friendship, of laughter, of belonging. What crackling possibility. What a chance for all of us to be creators in the most ordinary of realms.
I love that all people–writers, readers, or not–are made to be storytellers. God made us this way because he is the first Storyteller who told us into existence, and continues to define our lives with his redemptive words. But I think we partner with him in narration. Faith is one kind of buoyant of storytelling, we speak what we know is true and cannot see. But so is love. Love is definitely a narrator. Love chooses to speak what is possible about the people it describes. Love narrates lonely people into families. Love uses every word of its story to tell all people into grace. I have decided that I want the narrative I tell about other people to be a hospitable sort, one that tells people into my life as Gwen told me into hers. I want there to be a fireside feel to my conversation, a sort of pull-up-a-chair invitation in my words. I want to say to each person that happens into my days, “come on in, I’m going to tell you into my story.” And by God’s grace, it’ll be a good one.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.