What do I do with an untold life story?
Wrap it up softly then throw it away.
Are there boxes for keeping the old fading mem’ries
Of times past and times spent and grey yesterdays?
My grandmother-in-law is turning eighty-nine next month. We recently spent the day with her, listening to stories of her childhood and asking her about the family genealogy. She could rattle off names and dates without a pause, and I was heartened to spend time with someone her age, still so sharp. I don’t have that in my own family.
My husband knew some of the stories, had heard them growing up, but wanted me to hear them directly from her. These were her stories to tell, and he felt that some of the details weren’t his to disclose, even though he knew them. As we relaxed in our motel room that night, we got into a discussion about personal stories. He said that he never feels it’s appropriate to tell someone else’s story, unless it’s common knowledge—something the person has shared openly in a group setting. Even then, he’s not the type to gossip about it when the person’s not present.
I didn’t remember ever hearing him, in all our time together, put it quite this way. I knew from years of experience that I had to ask a million questions when he got off the phone with his mother, if I wanted to know what was happening with his siblings. And even then, I’d get a few terse comments with as little detail as possible. I had always attributed that to a quirk of temperament, a communication style, not a deeper belief about story.
The next morning, I woke up with a poem fragment in my head, one I had written weeks before:
The tale I want
To tell’s not mine
You own it
I had written little beyond that, not knowing what to do with it. The rest came out that morning, inspired by the conversations the day before.
This wasn’t the first time I had grappled with story in this way. Years ago, when I wrote Storyteller, I was struggling to find my own voice and wondered what right I had to my own story, what permission I needed to tell it. With my parents still alive, with society defining me, with my own insecurities, I wondered if I’d ever have the words, the voice, the strength, the courage to tell my own tale. What story would I choose to tell? There are many versions, many viewpoints. Whose is most valid?
It seems obvious to say that mine is, but somehow it’s not that simple. My viewpoint as a child is very different from my viewpoint now. The stories I tell about my parents, about the relationship with my mother, have shifted. Even the stories I tell about myself, about who I was and why, have changed as I’ve aged, adding experiences with the years that have colored and shaded those tales, giving them a depth that I couldn’t always appreciate. And others, that once seemed so important, have faded away. As the narrative shifts, which me tells the tale? And which tales are left untold?