Dispatches | February 04, 2013
Questions We Don't Ask, Stories We Should Tell
I don’t come from a family of natural-born storytellers. That is, we don’t have Irish ancestry, and we aren’t fishermen. During holiday get-togethers we sometimes share somewhat exaggerated memories of childhood hijinks (like the time my brother hog-tied my sister and locked her in a closet because she wouldn’t play hand-hockey with him) but these stories are usually fleeting. On the average night, we like to argue about politics until my mom gently changes the subject by offering us more food. Overall, we keep our big stories to ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s simply a different manner of communication. But because I’m the only writer in my family, I care about our stories.
This past summer my family made a trip to Casper, Wyoming for a reunion with my dad’s side of the family. My dad is one of seven kids and I’m one of sixteen grandchildren, which made for a chaotic week of catch-up and drinking in the backyard while swatting flies. During this week, I hit a storytelling goldmine. With help from photo albums, beer, and nostalgia, my grandparents, aunts, uncle and dad swapped stories about growing up in Casper in the same small house where all of us stood. Meanwhile, I sat on the sidelines scribbling quotes word-for-word into my notebook or squeezing shorthand versions of local legends into the margins. I acted as a scavenger of sorts, gathering up scraps of stories from my family’s lives for my own devices, to color my fiction with real-life details. I listened, but it was as a bystander, not as a niece or daughter or granddaughter. I think about this often, and wish I could take back. It turned out, this week in Wyoming was the last time I would see my grandpa alive.
In the week before he passed away, he had been hospitalized for what seemed like a minor infection, and I wasn’t worried. This was my tough-as-nails, mountain man grandpa. Three years ago, he had two incredibly painful knee replacement surgeries done at the same time “just to get it over with.” Five years ago, he was kicked out of a hardware store for being “unruly.” The man was a force to be reckoned with at any age, and I knew he wouldn’t go out without a fight. I was right about that, at least. My grandpa died on a Friday in January, surrounded by his children and some of his grandchildren.
By 5 a.m. Sunday morning, we were on the road from Kansas City to Casper. That night when we arrived at the hotel, my dad pulled me aside to ask if I would write something about my grandpa. He wanted a “narrative” of my grandpa’s life that we could print up and pass out at his funeral. “Not an obituary,” my dad told me. “Something longer, that tells some of his stories.” I said yes immediately. During the drive to Wyoming, I had spent hours rolling through a catalog of memories and the handful of stories my grandpa told last summer. I wanted to write something about him, based on the scribbled pages from my notebook. Instead, my dad’s offer allowed me to write (and learn) more about who my grandpa actually was.
Over the next few days, I asked a lot of questions. I met with my grandpa’s sister, Donna Lu, and asked about my grandpa’s childhood. What were his parents like? Was grandpa as ornery as a kid as he was in adulthood? Sitting down with my grandma, I asked about how they met. Where did they go on dates? What is the secret to a successful, 53-year marriage? With my aunts and my dad, I asked about what he was like as a father. What kinds of adventures did they have together? What were grandpa’s most meaningful pursuits?
It occurred to me that although I had always known my grandpa was a true character and a strong family man, I knew very little about what had happened in his life. After three days of mini interviews, I had six typed, single-spaced pages of stories from my grandpa’s life – stories I had never heard before. I never knew that my grandpa grew up on a farm in Nebraska, that he lied to the nuns at his Catholic school and cut class to go pheasant-hunting with his friends, that he played semi-pro baseball and got into brawls with the umpires over bad calls. He embarked on a road-trip to California with a buddy but stopped in Casper because he only had $5 left in his pocket, and stayed because he met my grandma at the local Knights of Columbus Hall. In the basement of his business, Lammers Do-It-Yourself Store, he built a meat-locker where all his hunting pals kept the game they shot in the mountains on ice. For years, he had an unofficially reserved seat at the back of church, which he secured each week by arriving 30 minutes before mass started. I never knew any of this, because I had never thought to ask.
Two nights before the funeral, I sat down to write the narrative. One thought would not leave my mind: our lives are so full. We are more than blood and bones and bodies – we are stories. Our heads and hearts archive our best and worst days, the people who moved us, the experiences that changed us, and the places that anchored us. If we don’t write our stories down, if we don’t tell someone our stories, then we let part of our history disappear. But more importantly, if we don’t ask the people we love these questions, then we are at fault.
In my grandpa’s case, six pages of notes barely served as an outline for the hardships and joys he experienced in his long life. I can’t imagine how many stories I missed out on. In the future, I won’t make the same mistake with anyone else in my family. It doesn’t matter whether any of them are storytellers. It is my duty as a writer to ask and listen, write down and remember every word, and ensure that no one’s story goes untold.
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