Tell Your Story

“To survive, you must tell stories.” Umberto Eco, Italian philosopher

Two weeks ago in my Mother’s Day column, I talked about Mom telling me she’d gotten angry with my father and had cut her wedding dress up to made curtains. My mother and I had been interrupted and I’d never thought to ask her about it later. She’s gone now, and I’ll never know the whole story.

You, too, have stories, those tales you tell around the kitchen table or while grilling out with friends or at gatherings like family reunions.

I wish my father had written down the story of how he and his brother shinnied up a tree and captured two young great-horned owls. I’d love to hear whether the adult owl attacked the boys, what my father and uncle fed the owlets, and how they cared for them. When my aunt first told me the story, my father and uncle had already passed away. My aunt said that after a few months of training, when the owls would see the boys grab their rifles, they’d flap their wings with excitement. They’d fly along with them and feast on the gophers the boys would shoot. Then a traveling man wanting to start a zoo stopped by. The boys let him take their pets, but I don’t know if they did it for money or how they felt to see their hunting partners leave. I wish Dad or my uncle had recorded the whole story.

“Writing is the gift of your presence forever.” Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, executive director of the National Writing Project

I wish I knew more about how my father fared during the Depression and how he felt after being told he must leave school after 8th grade to work the farm. Were he and his older brother happy to leave the books, or did he sense that he had sealed his fate and would be limited to working in a factory, raising a huge garden to help put food on the table and tending ducks and chickens for eggs and meat?

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you,” author Zora Neal Hurston said. I would add there is also no agony like wondering about all the family stories that could have been recorded. 

I wish I knew more about my aunt and uncle who were childless but invited a young orphaned raccoon to share their bed.

I wish I could remember more oft my mother’s stories about her beloved and faithful dog, Drafty, who would wait outside her country school each afternoon so he could greet her and walk her home. She told me several, but I’ve forgotten them.

I wish I knew more about my Norwegian relatives. It would be thrilling to discover the journal of my great-great grandmother who had gotten pregnant before marriage. She found out her lover had secretly booked a passage to America, bought herself a ticket, tracked him down, and made him marry her. I’d love to meet this woman through her words.

Someday, after you’re gone, relatives and friends will say, “I think that’s how it went,” and “I wish he or she were here to tell it again.” If you don’t tell your stories, who will? Help your loved ones out and record your stories. It may even be cathartic.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” Anais Nin, author

Take action now. Go ahead. Grab your favorite pen or laptop or recorder and memorialize your stories for generations to come. 

Note: this column was inspired by Anna Quindlen’s “Write for your Life.”

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