We had a white Christmas this year, which has not happened in quite some time. According to the local meteorology professor, there’s only a 10% chance of a white Christmas in any given year in our mountain town. It was also the most snowfall we’ve had in many years, which delayed my parents’ arrival to celebrate at our house by a few hours. One of the gifts they brought for us was a set of “books,” copied and bound pages, really. These books are their life stories, which they began writing earlier this year after my oldest brother gave them each a journal and asked them to write their stories.
Surprisingly, my mom’s story was the shorter of the two. She’s the talker of the two of them, so I guess I expected her story to be longer. Many of her stories were familiar to me, in part because she is a talker but also because we spent a lot of time with her family when I was growing up. Family legends always came up as we sat around the dinner table or a campfire. It was interesting to read regardless of its familiarity, and I enjoyed getting a sense of her as a little girl and of my grandparents and uncles when they were younger.
My father’s book spanned many pages and chapters and much of it was new to me. I knew a few sound bites from his youth, like he and his sister sometimes rode their horses to and from school, that he’d signed up for the Army and gone to Korea when he lost direction in college, and that his father had been murdered by ranch hands after a dispute when my father was a little boy. I also knew that he and my mom had a whirlwind romance and that they were married less than a year after meeting one another. What a treat, though, to learn of his extended trip to England as a boy, filled with interesting details about the school he attended, relatives they stayed with, and how frequently he had to clean his muddy shoes – a chore uncommon to an Arizona boy.
He described many life events in a considerable amount of detail, like his time as an Army clerk in Korea, or how he settled on a career as a wildlife biologist, and important projects that he worked on in that capacity. He’s kept a short account of his days, beginning in his youth, and so was able to recall specifics that may have otherwise been forgotten.
Mostly, though, I was struck by how deeply he loves my mom. I suppose that I knew on some level their connection – they’ve been married nearly sixty years and that doesn’t just happen without a serious investment in one’s partner. But it was so evident throughout his writing. I recognize how rare and singular it is for me not only to have both of my parents living and healthy at this stage in my life, but also for them to be so generous with their stories. Perhaps there is some desire for a degree of immortality in writing their stories like they’ve done, but why not? They lived in a time that bridged some groundbreaking inventions, global events of great significance, not to mention life in rural Arizona in the first half of the 20th Century. I have friends and cousins who will never know the stories of their parents, as much as they wish they could.
The stories were entertaining, sometimes poignant, and always interesting. It’s often that we offspring think they knew their parents having known them our entire lives. But we forget the lives and childhoods they had before we came along and changed everything for them. We don’t really know our parents; we only know them as parents.
I’ve read letters from a great-uncle I’d never met who wrote home of his work rebuilding bridges and roads in France after World War I. There’s a story in our family history about a wedding dress that was shared by several of my female ancestors. My husband’s grandparents recorded stories that my mother-in-law transcribed: the grandmother’s terrible bout with scarlet fever as a child and the burning of the church where the grandfather’s father was preacher.
And so I urge you, write down some memories, funny anecdotes, adventures you took. What was life like before smart phones, personal computers, and cable TV? It might feel strange to think your story is worth writing, but if you add enough detail and put your heart in it, it will be appreciated. Start with one story. Something unusual, tragic, or funny. And that will lead to another. Write it down for someone. It will be read.