I see my parents today for the first time in a couple months. My family and I are visiting for Christmas, a surprise visit. After the initial small-talk is over (How were the mountain passes? Oh, let’s not talk about my health. We’re so happy you’re here – how long are you staying?), Dad will inevitably launch into a story. This is normal fare. He is one of many in my family who collects stories, creates stories, shares stories. It can be small – his experience with the local utility company. It can be nostalgic – that favorite Christmas of his 25 years ago when almost the entire family came over for the last Christmas his mother was alive. It can be lengthy – a complete recollection of his time as an on-air radio announcer and deejay in the 50s and 60s. Many of them I have heard so often that I joke that they are numbered. “Oh, you’re going to tell me about that time you and your first wife drove Route 66? Isn’t that story #22?” Like family stories, even this tired joke gets a chuckle acknowledging its truth.
In his story-telling, Dad is not unique. Mother has her stories (her exchange with a taxi driver in France when she meant to tell him she was hot but instead told him she was aroused, the wonderful parties her father would have when he was flush with cash and power, and occasionally stories about her time as an orphan). I only tease her about numbering the happy stories – numbering the sad ones would depress her.
All of my many siblings have great stories: the time they dropped rocks down the drain at a then-new hotel in Arizona; when, as children, the family was so broke that they all shared a container of frozen strawberries for our dad’s birthday; or their memories of their home in Cave Creek where I lived until I was barely a month old but they lived their entire childhood. Before she passed some 25 years ago, my 98-year-old grandmother recorded on audio-cassette many of her stories of living through the Great Depression, her immigration to the United States, and the sights of terrible wars before mankind knew to number them.
I don’t really have any stories.
Oh, sure, I have vague memories but I’m not entirely sure they’re mine or if I borrowed them from an episode of a night-time serial my mother used to watch or perhaps a preteen magazine. There’s that time I was almost swept away at a San Diego beach…or was that my little sister? What about that time I was taken to the hospital to have something inappropriately swallowed removed from my stomach? No, that was Curious George. Well, how about when I was locked in the closet for hours by my brother? Er, but wasn’t that actually Edmund and Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Fine, then! Remember when I had that horrible fever and I had delusional dreams about flowers burning and time travel? Oh. No. That was Mrs. O’Keefe in A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
I try to remember experiences, try to shape them into some kind of framework that consists of a beginning, middle, and end. But they’re not there. I have impressions, snapshots of raw emotion that I know occurred tied to an event – some good, some sad, some hurtful, some life-changing. But no memories, no context, no stories.
Occasionally, I’ll ask my parents during a story re-telling: When was this? Was I born yet? What did you do with me at this time? From their answers, I can imagine a road-trip to Mississippi as a toddler when my sister ran away with a boy, an exciting trip to Mexico, or a visit to my grandfather’s prison cell near the end of his life. But most of their best stories occurred pre-me. I’m not even a starlet cameo in the movie of their lives.
None of this leaves me feeling unimportant or unloved. It does leave me feeling boring, though, without any tragedies or triumphs of note. I feel groundless, without ties, like dandelion spore released from its head after my sons have loosened it with their breath. (They believe each floating seed becomes a faerie.)
I also feel pressured into a decision, either to acquire more stories from others to pass onto my children or to set about creating our own. And maybe that is what gets to the heart of it: to share others’ stories is risk-free entertainment but to create one’s own involves effort and choices, perhaps even sacrifice. I’m not sure that’s me.
But that’s not a decision that needs to be made this week. We’re home for Christmas and it’s time to listen to my parents’ stories.