“It is more important to be known.” Francesca in the Bridges of Madison County
My mother’s upcoming 80th birthday is in early September. A surprise party is planned, so nostalgia reigns. I’ve been thinking about the stories that we will tell at her birthday party. I’ve been thinking that those stories are very different depending on who is telling it. Perspective is everything. I’ve also been thinking about the stories that we tell ourselves. Our life is one story after another. Stories define us.
I do couples counseling and when one person is struggling to see the full value of the other, I ask them to tell me about something in the form of a story. If I want them to see the value that the other brings to the relationship as a parent, I ask them to do more than say to the other “she’s a good mother.” Instead, I want to hear specific stories. As a general rule, the other has a greater appreciation when they describe the night that they stayed up all night with a sick child while they had a high fever themselves. Stories are powerful.
Many of my mother’s sisters will be at the party. I used to sit at the kitchen table as they told stories dunking a gingersnap cookie into my mother’s coffee. Sometimes I did it too long as I pulled out half of a cookie with the remainder at the bottom of her coffee cup. I was a little kid so no one really realized I was even there until they were about to really talk about the really good stuff and told me to go upstairs. And so I did. I laid my head on the register above the kitchen table and listened to the good stuff – no one ever knew. But I remember the family secrets and
often thought it unfair that I knew more about someone’s life than they did. But for me, knowing was important. It still is.
The truth will set you free is a saying that we all know but I have found that so many people shy away from the truth. I am not one of those people. I believe in it whole heartedly. I was haunted by an event in my childhood that I did not find the truth about until I was in my 40s. The cloud over my life was gone once I knew the full truth. I knew what happened and what I was forgiving. My father spent most of his life hating his older brother because when their mother was dying in a Kentucky cabin, they had to take her on a sled to get her to the road for a ride to the hospital. My father’s perception was that his brother was more worried about his car than his mother. The truth is that if he had driven his car to the cabin, the car would have been stuck in the mud. My father saw this through the eyes of an 11 year old boy and held onto his version of the truth. It did not serve him well.
My mother’s father died in his 30’s from a brain cancer. The stories of my grandfather were that he was in WWII, a good man and that the loss of him was unbearable. I heard that story all of my life. My grandmother was in her 80’s and I think feeling herself slipping into dementia and decided to tell my mother how she saw her husband. Suffice it to say that it is more complicated. We are all flawed people and so was he. My mother essentially rejected the story. It was too painful to hear. Her truth was comforting. As a believer in the truth shall set you free, I carry my
grandmother’s story about the grandfather I never knew.
In the book Bridges of Madison County, the heroine decides to tell her secret to her daughters because she decides it is more important “to be known.” My husband’s medical event in January has reminded me how incredibly fragile life is. We tell more stories so that we are known. An 80th birthday is a great opportunity, but an ordinary day is just as good.