The Story Before the Story

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.

vintage window on stone wall backgroundHe’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.

My dad - "Bobby"

My dad – Bobby

My dad’s mom – Agnes

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.


HereinthemiddleHi, 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 hereTo 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.


About Julie Jo Severson

Julie Jo Severson, former PR girl, is now a freelance writer, journalist, editor, and lost-and-found attendant for two teens and a tween. This is where she doodles about past, present, future clinking glasses and making peace.

30 comments on “The Story Before the Story

  1. I’ve always loved Stephen Covey’s third ‘highly successful people habit’-seek to understand than be understood. It’s so important that we know there is a story before the story that we see now (and can judge others on). I wrote a piece once titled “The story behind the story,” but like your choise of using ‘before.’

  2. Your father’s story gave me tears. My dad lost his father to cancer when he was 16 years old. Being the oldest of 5, he had to take on enormous amount of responsibility and carry the emotions of his loss. My dad doesn’t talk much about it, but your story has inspired me to maybe delve a little deeper and ask those unanswered questions.

  3. Your relationship with your father sounds very similar to how mine was. When I was younger, my dad told a few stories from his childhood that were fun, but other than that, I wasn’t hugely interested in knowing about his life. Then as I grew older, I also wanted to know and came to admire him hugely. We started to record his memories of WW2 a few years ago, but he died of cancer before we could finish.

    I also totally agree with the sentiment you express here: “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.” I even wrote a post a while ago using the same analogy of tapestry, though mine was specifically about parenting and how our life experiences influence decisions as parents so it’s futile to judge other parents.

  4. What an incredible story- and you write it so brilliantly, as you always do with any story. I can picture the details of the tale and your father’s face behind the open newspaper, full of nostalgia and a still sadness as he reminisced with your prompting.

    Just beautiful- this message you share Julie. Yes oh yes- there are stories behind many stories behind even more after that- in all of us and the generations before and after. You have opened my eyes to look at the landscape of humanity with deeper views and a wider perspective, understanding that each person I encounter has a history of stories- “a treasure trove.”

    I am one of those people that strikes up a conversation with other strangers pretty often. It’s amazing all that I learn in just one interaction- depending on how long the line is that we are waiting in, or how much time we have in the pool before the whistle blows etc. I am fascinated by people- and their stories. Just the other day, three boys were in the lap pool with another woman apparently watching them. Kids aren’t allowed in there, so this at first kinda annoyed me- but the boys were having fun and I wondered if the woman was their mom. I asked. I also told her I loved her swim suit. It was really beautiful.

    From that moment on- and after the mom showed up in her wheelchair to check in with her boys- I learned the story- and the treasure trove was unlocked and opened and in full display. She was heavily into drugs, got really drunk at a bar one night and drove home- hit a tree. Her husband left her and she went into rehab twice. After 30 minutes of the detailed version, she shared the true gem in the treasure trove-

    Had she not drove into that tree, she would have trashed her life and lost it anyway. She expressed gratitude for her injuries- and that without the accident, she would have lost everything. She said shehas relapsed, but went back to rehap and her husband is out of the picture for good.

    She has never been closer to her three boys. They tell her they love the ‘new mom’ so much better. I found that to be quite amazing- miraculous, as she put it.

    The boys kept interrupting, asking me to do the ‘flip turn’ over and over again. They were so adorable. I told their mom that too.

    I missed a good part of my workout- but those are the conversations that simply rise up and into your heart for good. I love love LOVE it when that happens.

    • Chris! What an incredible encounter! Just think of the lift in that woman’s heart and day you gave her just by asking and listening. The fact that you’re “one of those people who strike up conversations with strangers pretty often” doesn’t surprise me one bit and your story goes to show the profound connections that happen as as a result. We’re not all wired to strike up conversations with strangers. And that’s okay. I’m not so good at that. But even just remembering each person has a story to tell helps me be more patient with those I encounter throughout my day, such as the woman ahead of me holding up the line at the grocery store (actually, I’m the one usually holding up the line, because I can never find my debit card). As always, your stopping by here made my day.

  5. What a great story. My mom passed away a little over a month ago. I am so glad I took the time to ask her about when she was young. I seen my mom in a different light when she shared her stories and it gave her such joy to reminisce.

    • Thank you, Elena. I’m so sorry to hear about the recent passing of your mother! Yes, asking not only gives us more insight, but gives them such joy to have somebody listen. You’re so right about that.

  6. You remind me that I need to ‘ask’ my Mum about her story. My dad passed away 18 years ago, and I regret that I didn’t find out so much more about his life as a boy and all the things he did and experienced as he grew up, and later as a young man (although my Mum has since told me more). We were never a family to take many photos, so I don’t even have many of them to look at. My Mum is now 85, and I really must take more photos, have more talks that go past the day to day, and take care to spend quality time. Thank you for writing. Linda. x

  7. When I was growing up it amazed me that my father could French braid hair, cooked all of our meals and was usually the one to take me shopping and would pick out the most amazing outfits. All skills that most Dads didn’t showcase in those days. It wasn’t until I was older that I found out his older brothers and sisters worked to keep food on the table while their father was ill and my Dad took care of the home front cooking, raising a baby sister, and taking care of his dying mother.

    • Wow. Thank you for sharing that. That is amazing insight to gain about your father. The story behind his gestures, his strengths. Heartbreaking, but so wonderful for you to have that knowledge.

  8. Oh I love this Julie. My parents were from the silent generation, too. They never told me anything. Oh, how I wish I could have interviewed them. But i have grilled their sibling and cobbled together their backstory and it’s very interesting. And it helped me process our history, and really, gave me a great deal of peace.

    • That’s wonderful how you did what you could, Allie, by talking to and gathering information from other family members to fill in some of the gaps. I do realize how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to learn so much about my heritage, to have had my parents around long enough for me to ask. Like my father, Your early losses are an integral part of your own story swirling around in the fabric of your life. You’ve chosen to go better not bitter and that’s incredible.

  9. Totally beautiful, and a stark reminder of how much we stand to lose if we ever stop asking, and how very much we can gain by remembering that EVERYONE has a story, and they all matter. I loved this prompt, and I think I answered it similarly – that if only, IF ONLY we all could matter to one another.

    Your father’s generation of people just ASTONISH me with their resilience.

  10. Yes, exactly Lizzi! What I’ve learned about you in a short amount of time is that you have so much story to tell, and you are the kind of person who appreciates and takes the time to learn the story of others. You’re always so thoughtful in your comments here and I truly appreciate that!

  11. Gorgeous words Julie. I adore you. I remember the first time I really thought about my grandma as a young girl. We were at dinner and she was telling me stories before my story and I’ll treasure them always. I love that your dad climbed up a telephone pole to wave to his mom although it’s also utterly heartbreaking. I’m so glad you joined Finish the Sentence. This is beautiful.

  12. I know this is sort-of a “late” comment, but I’d just come to read your “Hello Deer with the Broken Ear” story (which made me cry, but in a good way!) and ended up wandering around more. This is also a beautiful piece and contains so much wise advice. Although I always felt like I was close with my parents, since their passing (nearly 10 years ago for Daddy and 3-1/2 for Mom) I feel such a loss of what all I *don’t* know of their “Story Before the Story.” And now it’s too late to ask.

    I also love the suggestion to consider asking “So, how’s your day going?” more often. Interestingly, just yesterday at Walmart I actually said those exact words to my young cashier and had a great conversation with her. On the one hand I imagine she probably gave it no further thought, and on the other I think just maybe she appreciated just a moment of someone actually “seeing” her, even for a 4-minute chat, rather than her just being the invisible person checking them out.

    Love your writing! (Even if it does make me cry!)

    • Oh Arden, thank you so much! I can’t tell you how much your thoughtful comment meant to me. I’m sorry that you have lost both parents now and that you have some regrets of not asking some things you wished you had. Most don’t ask, it seems, so I hope you’re not too hard on yourself about that. I’m a journalist by trade and so “Interrogating” them comes natural to me. Yes, that moment at Walmart! I had another one of those moments at Target last night. I was in a hurry to get home, but cashier seemed pretty unsure of himself and seemed to want to chat and chat and chat about some unfortunate situations he’d recently been in! So, instead of getting annoyed in my efforts to get home after a long day, I did my best to just relax, slow down, and listen. I love how you phrased it as “seeing” her in regard to your cashier. That is a beautiful way to look at it. Thank YOU for stopping by.

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