My dad as a young boy would have climbed the tallest mountain for his mother if he could have. But all he had available to him that afternoon while standing outside her hospital room window was a telephone pole.
Since kids weren’t allowed in the Intensive Care Unit, Bobby, as they called him, then 7 or 8, decided to take matters into his own hands (which he still often does) in order to wave hello and goodbye to his mother before the cancer swooped her away.
Dressed in his late 1930s after-school garb, which I picture in my mind to be an old pair of knickers, a t-shirt and knee socks, he climbed the telephone pole located about fifty yards from her hospital room window, no doubt scraping his scrawny ankles on the way up.
He’s not sure if she saw him out there waving, but either way, he’s glad he made the effort. She died soon after. She was 37.
During his mother’s wake, held in the living room of his childhood home on Minnesota Street in a small Minnesota town, Bobby walked up to the casket and looked inside to see the woman who used to make him blueberry pancakes—now stiff as his skateboard with a waxy face.
“I remember wishing I could climb in and go where she was going . . . I still think about her a lot, ” he said to me several years ago sitting at his second-hand dining table, the Sunday newspaper spread out in front of him with a bowl of steaming goulash moistening his face—like tears.
I wanted to reach over with a handkerchief and gently wipe away those “tears” I imagined were still lingering from the loss of his mother and all her snuggles and cuddles so young. I wanted to understand and lighten any burdens and sadness still rippling deep inside this complex, often distracted, but fiercely loyal man I love so deeply.
Born into the “silent generation” during the thick of the great depression, my dad rarely spoke about his past to us kids, at least as far as I can remember. And I never used to ask. As a kid, for the most part, I didn’t give much thought to the existence of anyone prior to mine.
But then I grew up, moved out, and began longing for a narrative bigger than myself. I ached to know more about the man and woman whose perspectives and behind-the-scenes sweat and tears sculpted a childhood for my eight siblings and me. Questions about all the things I didn’t know flooded in.
And so, I began to ask. I asked and asked and asked. After so many years of not asking, I burrowed and delved and brought to light my parents’ backstory like a buried treasure trove.
A backstory—each of us has one, of course. The story before the story. The totality. The accumulation of events and histories that have led to the here and now, to who we are, to how we view ourselves, and to how we interact with the world.
As my parents graciously reminisced for my behalf, I began to see them more clearly and fully, as though a window had been opened and through it was a man and woman with rich, complex fibers and lessons of love and loss stitched and stretched into their tapestry.
But not only that, it caused me to begin to wonder about the story before the story of others, too.
The telephone pole story, although it’s only a fraction of the totality of my father and of the stories I learned from both my parents, has served as a powerful reminder to me over the years that every single person whose path I cross carries love and loss within them and incomparable richness beyond that which meets the eye.
Whether it’s our child’s bus driver, the woman behind the counter at the post office, the salesman who calls during dinner, the mothers and fathers of our kids’ friends, the neighbor washing his car, the parent sitting on the other side of us at the soccer game—that quieter one we don’t know as well as the others —there’s always a story before the story.
But even so, even with the telephone pole story swirling around inside me all the time, I still, too often, make assumptions and form opinions of others without keeping in mind the whole picture.
Imagine the tolerance we’d gain, the gems we’d find if we pulled back the curtain a little, looked beyond the exterior, considered the intricate fabrics—the story before the story—woven into the tapestries of others before our assumptions and opinions set in, before dismissing someone as a potential friend or worthy of inclusion and a kind, friendly greeting.
If I could teach the world one thing, that would be it. I’m not talking about going around interrogating people, asking about their life stories as I did with my parents. That would be weird. And, each of us only has so much time and energy, not to mention varying amounts of extroversion, needed to reach out and get to know people better. I, for one, have a very limited supply of all three of those things. But I probably could muster up enough to stop, turn to the one I don’t typically gravitate to for whatever reason, consider the story before the story, and ask “So, how’s your day going?” a little more often.
I’ll bet we’d be surprised by the treasure trove we’d find.
Hi, I’m Julie Jo Severson, mother of three and freelance writer and editor. I started this blog, Carvings on a Desk, in 2015 to reconnect with my own voice as I doodle about past, present, future clinking glasses and making peace. To read my other recent posts, click here. To read more on what this blog is all about, click here.
Stayed tuned for future announcements about the upcoming anthology, “Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between” curated by Christine Organ and me. We are beyond humbled by this collection of stories and writers.