by | Apr 19, 2017 | Gayle Lynds, The Writer's Life | 8 comments

Council Bluffs, Iowa, where I grew up.

By Gayle Lynds.  We had no front porch with chairs for sitting when I was young, but we did have a kitchen table.

Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner and Eudora Welty are famous for crediting their relatives with front-porch storytelling that inspired them to write fiction.  But the families and neighbors of those literary giants had nothing over the group of housewives around my mother’s kitchen table.

In the afternoon, Mom’s girlfriends would drop by for coffee.  Marguerite Dingman always parked in front of the house, where her car stuck out into the traffic on Highway 64.  Marguerite had a strong and delightful rebel streak.  As trucks whizzed past inches from her car, she hurried unconcerned toward our front door.  I’ll never forget her lipstick, hot red and, like her, glamorous.

At the same time, Maxine Mether walked up the block.  Maxine was an über mom, deeply involved with her two little boys, and very kind.  And then there was gorgeous Vernelle Lainson, smart and chatty.  She came down the hill from next door.  Greeting all was my mother, Marian Hallenbeck, tall and striking, with a great heart.

from newspaper
Mom’s photo, from newspaper

The inviting aroma of Maxwell House would fill our kitchen.  The colorful melamine cups and saucers would come out, the girlfriends would sit, and what they called gossip would begin.  I was often there, too, listening and drinking Pepsi from a 16-ounce glass bottle.  I was the eldest of all their children, and they found my curiosity amusing.  In truth, I was in training.

With a simple trip downtown to run errands, they’d bring back tales: The grocer’s wife who’d run away with the postman.  Very racy.  The city councilman arrested for embezzlement.  How could he.  The local jewelry store robbed by out-of-town gangsters who later turned up dead in Lincoln, Nebraska.  The worst (and most exciting) story of the year. 

They argued politics, discussed home cures, and exchanged theories of child rearing. Nothing was sacred, including religion.  When someone was sick or died, they baked casseroles and spent hours on the phone, listening to each other’s pain, reminding each other that tomorrow could be a better day.

It was an era abundant with something we seem to lack in our modern era — time.  Time to build deep friendships based on the intimacy of the day to day.  Time that seemed to stretch ahead unchanging, giving life a certainty that allowed the focus to be on now. 

At every coffee klatch there were new stories, new details for ongoing stories, and stories coming to a close.  The coffee pot perked.  The trucks swerved.  And the girls talked. 

I was riveted by the rise and fall of their voices, the intensity of their gestures and postures.  They told the tales and reacted at the same time, simultaneously writers and readers.  Every story came with something to hold on to, to learn, to care about, to remember. 

As the years passed, the lines on their faces deepened.  Their eyes faded and softened.  Their insights grew.  And their stories continued. . . .

Until a few years ago.  All are dead now, alas, but I can conjure them up in a heartbeat.  As I write my books, I hear their voices in my mind.  Very racy.  How could he.  The worst (and most exciting) story of the year.  Your turn, Gayle.  Tell a story.

Now I understand this is the spine of life, as true today as it was then.  We still tell each other stories.  In Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest and Skype, we harvest the past and plow into the future.  Although I spent far more years as a journalist, editor, and writer than I spent in childhood, my life as an author was settled here, at my mother’s kitchen table.

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    What a wonderful invocation of a slower and quieter time. With all our technology, we have lost something so fundamental and essential – and how much poorer we are for that loss. At least we still have storytellers like you to write and tell the stories in print and on screen, even if we are no longer sitting on out porches and at our kitchen tables. Thank you for the memories.

  2. Karna Bodman

    I love this post, Gayle — you are so right about taking the time to really LISTEN to those who have stories to tell, experiences to share, and advice to give. Alas, today it seems we (especially our young people) succumb to what I'd call "the tyranny of now" — simply focusing on the latest tweet or text. It's wonderful that you have those memories, especially of the way the conversations unfolded — I'm sure it contributed to your great use of dialogue in the terrific thrillers you are writing today.

  3. Jamie Freveletti

    Love Marguerite! And the post man and grocer! Great post.

  4. Sonja Stone

    Gayle, what a lovely introduction you had to storytelling. Women gathered together, sharing love, food, time. Thank you for the glimpse of your kitchen table!

  5. Julia Luehrman

    Thanks for sharing, Gayle. What a wonderful reminder of my own discovery of my mother and grandmother as women and friends. I'll never forget the first time I was deemed old enough to join them at the kitchen table where they peeled apples or potatoes, catching up on town news as our annual visit to the farm unfolded. We became three generations of Telligman women that summer. What a treasury the kitchen often is.

  6. Unknown

    this is a lovely way to begin my day, you've brought back so many memories of my mother and her sister and sisters in law sitting around her dining room table (the kitchen was too small for a table) sharing family stories and secrets. it's where i learned that my mom had been married at 16! i miss them all so much, thank you for this 'quiet moment in time.'

  7. john

    Nice, Gayle! Makes me envious.

  8. Chris Goff

    My mother and her friends gathered over bridge. Out would come the card tables and chairs, the white linens and the little candy mints. More talking was done than playing, I think, and I, too, listened intently. Later, my friends and I would emulate the activity, pretending we were grown up and creating imaginary stories about our own lives. You're absolutely right. That was an era abundant with time. Oh to be able to slow things down.