Updated: Sep 9, 2022
Saturday nights, everyone in our family made it a point to be home for dinner with my dad. He would walk over from his house and stay long past when the meal was finished. He was the only person who could keep the teenagers in their chairs because he told stories - some of them the same ones we had heard a handful of times, but we didn't care. Dad had a delivery that was worth sticking around for, even if it was sometimes repetitive.
"We have got to remember to record these stories," I would tell Kyle, or he would tell me - after Dad had left for the evening. We would promise each other that the following week, we would set a recorder in the middle of the table while he talked. And every week, we forgot. Dad died suddenly and unexpectedly on June 7, 2015, without one moment of his stories recorded. I do have stories he put down on paper - some handwritten, and others from his old Royal typewriter. Once, he walked over to my house, coffee mug in one hand and folded papers in the other.
"Your adoption story," he said as he handed the papers to me. "Just felt like I needed to get it down."
Another time, he wrote three pages for one of the kids about his role in the play, The Night of January 19th. He played the role of a police officer and while driving to the cast party in costume, he was stopped for speeding and hauled in for impersonating an officer. Fortunately, when he got to the station, the booking officer knew about the play and let him off with a $25 fine and a warning that he should not have too much fun at the cast party. After all, he was still in uniform.
I have only one regret about what I left unfinished with both my parents: capturing their stories. They grew up in rural Arkansas during the Great Depression surrounded by relatives with names like Fannie, Willie, Otho, and Dibrell. They endured hardships that would level most people, but they kept moving forward with good humor and the kind of steadfastness I am trying to emulate. My family needs these stories to remind us that life is hard, and surviving it requires laughter, resilience, and community. But the stories are fading. When I try to remember them, details are sketchy and I fear my mind is playing tricks on me. Was it Baltimore or St. Louis when Mom and Dad lived in the garage apartment with the landlord who always wore a skullcap? And was Dad thrown from the back of the pickup as a child after picking strawberries, or were they on their way back from a St. Louis Cardinals game? Some stories were so unbelievable anyone outside our family might doubt their veracity, but we didn't. They were told the same way every time, and my own life includes similar stories that seem too outlandish to be believed. Yours does too. We often disregard our stories, preferring to believe that they are inconsequential compared to others. My parents probably didn't think anyone wanted to hear how they survived the loss of a nine-month-old baby or what they did during the secret after-church parties at the Flamingo Motel on Sunday nights. But you do want to know, don't you?
I'm a writer, and I failed at compiling the stories of my parents. This would have been one of the best gifts I could have given myself, my children, and their children. Life is so busy that we think there will be time. I'll do that later, we tell ourselves. There is time.
So if you have parents or grandparents who are alive and able to tell their stories, call or hug them - or do both. Then, find a way to capture their stories. Set that recorder in the middle of the table, send some email prompts, or have your kids make the ask (this works best). I have one more chance to get this right with my biological father, who I found three years ago. It's more complicated, but I'm working on it.
Send me a message if you are also working on this. And if you have your family stories already compiled, I'd love to help you low-key publish them. Let's keep the stories alive!