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May 7, 2016

Ruth Wariner on the Magic of Her Mother’s Storytelling

Posted by emily

Ruth Wariner did not have a typical childhood: Raised by a polygamist family on a ramshackle farm in rural LeBaron, Mexico, she was the 39th of her father's 42 children, who managed to escape the narrow world of her childhood and explore on her own terms. One thing she always carries with her, though, is the memory of her mother reading, with solemn precision, the wondrous stories of the Bible and tirelessly encouraging her own budding curiosity. You can read all about Ruth’s fascinating life in her memoir, THE SOUND OF GRAVEL.

My mom had 10 children, and I am her fourth. Growing up in the rural Mexican desert, my siblings and I weren't exposed to very many different kinds of books. In the polygamist Mormon colony where we lived, we didn't have local libraries or bookstores to visit. Instead, every Sunday afternoon after church, while Mom's whole wheat bread was baking in the oven, she sat down on our squeaky white and green hide-a-bed sofa and read to us, holding our tattered, hardcover children's Bible open over her lap. It was one of the few times she didn't have the corner of her cotton blouse raised and the tip of her nursing bra unattached while she breastfed her youngest child.

My stepfather had four wives and divided his time between four different households, so it was almost always just Mom, my siblings and me sitting together. For as long as I can remember, we surrounded Mom, sitting slouched with our calves crossed over our rough oval rug or lying down with our jaws resting in our palms and our elbows digging into it. The small square living room was right next to the kitchen, and every room in our five-room adobe house smelled like fresh baked bread.

Mom's tired voice read stories about exotic, faraway places in a serious tone, as if every word was literally true and factual. But I remember them more like they were magical realism, and I was always captivated, fascinated and sometimes even frightened by the strangeness of each narrative. My siblings and I listened intently and wide-eyed as she read about God creating the earth, serpents in the Garden of Eden, two of each animal boarding a huge wooden ship before the entire earth flooded, God's promises represented in rainbows, millions of frogs covering the earth, a pharaoh's prophecies and dreams, and Jesus dying but then coming back to life.

It was rare for Mom to have our full attention like that, and the usual chaos that ran through our household like a tornado settled into a calming peace and quiet. Even the baby lay quietly next to her on a blanket. No matter what the weather was like outside our uncovered windows, Mom's full attention always felt like warm sunlight enveloping me.

Mom had always been the kind of woman who searched for meaning and purpose in every aspect of her life. It was no different with the Bible stories she chose to read. After she finished, she would explain the meaning behind each one like a thoughtful teacher who needed to make sure we understood. When I was a child, I took her lessons to heart. I asked her questions with intense curiosity.

Why did God flood the earth?

What did the pharaoh's dreams mean?

How did God talk to Moses through a burning bush?

She took my questions seriously and responded with her interpretations thoughtfully and patiently. I soaked in every word.

That routine became a part of who I was and is just as much a part of who I am now. I don't read the Bible very often anymore, but I still think of those stories as if they were written for children. I hear Mom's raspy voice reading, smell her homemade bread, and see her lightly freckled hands holding the hardcover book with Bible story scenes illustrated across the tattered tan cover.

I carried those vivid memories with me when I moved to the States, and in college, I always participated in classroom literature discussions with the same kind of curiosity and enthusiasm. I don't take books and stories as seriously as Mom did, but I do belong to three book clubs. In order for me to finish reading one, though, it has to have meaning and purpose in it: relatable characters, powerful relationships, redemption, compassion, forgiveness and love. When they do, I enjoy every minute of my book clubs' thought-provoking discussions. I ask those same "how," "why" and "what" questions, and I still feel as if Mom is sitting right beside me ready to answer every one of them.