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1,001 stories: Sharing tales of ‘When Mama Was Little’ with my son


It was a rainy afternoon, and I was home monitoring my 4-year-old, who was bouncing on the bed, his favorite indoor activity. As his velocity approached that of the “wocket ship” he was impersonating, I realized that it was time to intervene. Wondering how best to wrangle him away from his launchpad, it occurred to me that a brief history lesson might be in order.

“Did I ever tell you about [your uncle] and the bed?” I asked.

As I’d hoped, Simon stopped jumping and looked at me expectantly.

“Once, when we were little,” I began, “he was jumping on Grandma’s bed. And he crashed into her dresser and cut his head. There was blood all over his hair. We went to the hospital, and a doctor sewed up the cut with special thread. And after that, he was always careful about jumping on the bed.”

Simon gazed at me, wide-eyed, and I congratulated myself on the success of my tale.

“Did you ever jump on the bed?” my son finally asked.

“Sometimes,” I admitted. “Not too high, though,” I added.

“When you were little?”

“That’s right.”

Simon stared at me. I had mentioned incidents from my childhood before, but now I could see the realization blossoming in him. Mama wasn’t always a mama. She used to be little. Like me.

“Tell me another story about when you were little!” he burst out.

Call me Scheherazade. Unlike the heroine of “A Thousand and One Nights,” I use my storytelling powers not to appease a king but to satisfy the craving for narrative in my 4-year-old. Still, I often think of that wily and inventive bride when I’m in the car, the kitchen and especially at nap time, when Simon unfailingly demands, “Tell me a story about when you were little!”

A dedicated reader myself, I know all about the seductive lure of a good story. But as a parent, I’m tickled by my son’s fascination with the ordinary incidents of my childhood. After all, his shelf is filled with more exciting fare: Curious George, Max and those wild things, the entire population of Busytown. But dramatic plots don’t matter to him. My magic formula is simple: homey details and a setting in the bygone era “when Mama was little” (not long after dinosaurs roamed the earth).

At first I was bemused by how intriguing Simon finds these episodes. Then I realized that my son is beginning to develop a sense of perspective on the world. Only now is he grasping that his father and I have lives and pasts separate from his own. The notion that his all-powerful parents were children once is both fascinating and deeply comforting to Simon — a fact I’ve learned to employ at strategic moments.

“You know, buddy, I never liked getting my hair washed, either,” I told him at bath time recently.

Simon quit thrashing in the tub. “You didn’t?”

“No way. The shampoo always got in my eyes. One time Grandma had to chase me around the house to get me in the bathtub. I ran right out the front door; and guess what? I wasn’t wearing any clothes!”

Simon chortled at this hilarious scenario. He still wasn’t thrilled when the shampoo came out, but knowing I’d endured the same indignity seemed to reconcile him to the proceedings.

The Adventures of Little Mama series grew to include such titles as “Going to the Swimming Pool,” “How We Mowed the Lawn” and — though I came to regret my folly — “When Mama Threw Aunt Megan’s Toy Chicken Out the Car Window.”

Until I began talking about it to Simon, I’d considered my childhood happy but unremarkable. Weaving the events of those years into stories for my son has made me remember and savor details that have long been buried under the minutiae of adult life: the wet slickness of the swimming pool slide, the grating crunch of my sled’s runners hitting a patch of bare asphalt, the hot vinyl car seat sticking to my legs on a long summer trip, the slippery satin quilt on my grandmother’s bed.

Telling Simon about my childhood has made me realize that the simplest, most ordinary aspects of our current lives will eventually comprise the details of stories he’ll tell his own children someday. And if my boy turns out to be anything like his mother, he’ll find a way to dramatize them. I’m already anticipating how the grandkids will react to “When Daddy Put the Books in the Bathtub.”

On second thought, maybe I’ll tell that one myself.

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have recently appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, and Full Grown People. She lives in Portland, Ore.

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