Accused of Not Making It Up
When I was seven years old, I spent a day with my friend Richard. He was seven, like me, but with darker hair and glasses, and my visit was like a lot of others before and after. We played in his house for a while. His parents told us to play outside. We occupied ourselves, although not for long enough, and Richard's mother Mary revealed that we had plans. She drove us to the planned event.
I don’t remember the event and don't recall much from earlier in the day, either. The memorable moment, which was one of confusion and revelation, came during the ride back to Richard‘s home.
His family had a station wagon, the color of the trim fairly light. We were sitting in the back of it, maybe in seats that let us face each other. Or maybe we were lounging around and finding positions to talk. The sunlight was bright outside. After a while of looking through the contents of the seats and floor, we discovered we hadn’t brought enough to do on the ride. I decided to make up a story and tell it.
I’m not sure why. I'd been warned against it. However, I had recently written poems that appeared in a children’s magazine, so I might have felt encouraged to speak up. Also, something we had done or a remark from Richard, maybe both together, had given me a story idea. I thought I could tell it like my mother was reading to me from a storybook.
As I sat there with Richard and spun out the Aesop-like tale, I improvised events based on Richard's responses. He liked dinosaurs. So there was a dinosaur. There was a good boy. There was a mischievous boy to cause trouble. In a few minutes, I came to what seemed to me to be a funny and scary surprise ending. Telling it made me happy because it was like one of the kids' books I read. Those were toned-down versions of The Monkey's Paw or of Aladdin and the Lamp. With every victory, there had to be a catch, and I introduced one for the final outcome.
Before this, no one seemed to like the stories and poems I invented. This time, I got a unique response.
“Tell it again,” Richard said.
I stammered for a moment as I was trying to think why the request felt impossible. Then I decided to give it a try because he was my best friend. Right away, Richard called me out on an inconsistency in my retelling. I'd veered off to a different path of events. I remember realizing his objection was correct. If I kept on going, there would be no way to reach the same ending.
“Sorry,” I said. “I was making it up. I don’t think I can make it up the same way again.”
“You were not,” called Richard’s mother from the front seat. Mary's reaction was my realization that she had been listening to us. “You didn’t make up the whole story, did you?”
I had been accused of making things up many times. Often enough, if I were being pressed to give testimony against myself, it was true. I'd make up anything to escape consequences.
“Don’t make up stories,” my father warned me as he caught me in it every time.
“I think you are making up stories,” my grandmother would say in a similar situation, sometimes unfairly.
This was the first time I could recall being accused of not making up a story. I'd even admitted beforehand that I was making it up. I didn’t know what to say. Mary could tell I'd fallen silent but her eyes were on the road. She started firing off questions. I tried to answer.
Her first thought to ask was about where I had read the story. But I hadn’t. Maybe, I ventured, it was like a kids' movie or something I'd seen on television. From the images in my head, the possibility sort of made sense to me. So Mary questioned me about TV programs. She included her son in the questions, too. Then she added more suggestions but we reached dead ends. The story hadn't come from kids' shows, cartoons, movies, or comic books. The only strong similarity was to the stories in an Aesop collection but my story hadn't been any of those. Mary's inquiries got gentler and gentler the longer her investigation continued.
“So." At a stoplight, she paused to take a different angle on the problem. She hit the gas pedal. "Do you remember the beginning of the story?”
After a bit of consideration, I told her what I thought was the beginning. She and Richard both remembered the actual starting phrase, though, and reminded me. I had to agree. They were right.
After a while, more quietly, Mary said, “I think you did make it up.”
"Sorry," I said. "I won't do it again."
“No, no, you did a good job." Her voice grew higher and louder for a moment. Then she took a deep breath. "I didn’t mean to discourage you.”
Of course, lots of people did mean to discourage me, often in understandable circumstances. Apparently, at least one person was willing to allow me to make up stories, though.
"Does Ann know?" she asked. "I mean, does your mother know you make up stories?"
"Uh huh." She had been the one to send my poems to the kids' magazine, Kaleidoscope.
"Then she likes the stories. You're doing fine."
My clearest memory of the incident is almost precisely this moment. The horrible confusion beforehand, which you would think sticks out, doesn't. By itself, the panic would not have formed a lasting impression. After all, I spent a significant part of my childhood confused and upset. Another possibility, the paradox of being accused of not making up a story, didn't turn out to be unique, either. Little puzzles with little 'aha' moments are sort of frequent, anyway. When our lives turn on them, maybe they become important to us, but we have to realize their importance, too, or else we take a different direction in our lives without remembering why. We often don't remember, I think.
No, the lasting emotion was my sense of relief and of wonder as I witnessed an adult change her mind. And say so. That was the revelation, one of the ordinary but essential 'ahas' of my life.