Listening to parents' memories reveals secrets of past

The secret of a good memory is attention, and attention to a subject depends upon our interest in it.


- Tryon Edwards

The old man sits on the back porch swing. His wife of almost six decades sits nearby while their oldest child drinks ice tea and asks questions.

I can't help it. Professional habit.

It is the Fourth of July and the rarest of holidays because the house is not full of sons and daughters and grandchildren. Just us, and I am enjoying their undivided attention.

"Do you remember the first time you saw Mama?" I ask him.

"Oh, not really," he says as if distracted. There is a pause.

"She was wearing a blue sweater and a gray skirt and those black and white shoes ... what do you call them?"

"Saddle shoes?" I offer.

"... Standing there at the school. Dark hair ... No, I guess I've forgotten."

But, of course, that was his point. He hasn't forgotten and the woman in the chair beside me provides the slightest of triumphant smiles.

That's the beginning, but not the end of a wonderful hour of questions and answers and stories.

Some are well-known family legends: The famous first date - a church ice cream social chaperoned by a father and three younger brothers.

The famous first rival, who became the last rival after my father removed the unfortunate suitor's pants one day at school, then ran them up the flagpole.

The famous first kiss attempt, which provoked a polite slap.

My mother verifies every account with a bemused nod.

I ask her how they ended up in the same high school and she provides a complicated account of family moves that eventually led to that fateful day when she wore a gray skirt and saddle shoes.

In describing that she recalls her own father, who died when she was a teenager.

People still remember him as the kindest of men. They also remember how hard he worked.

My mother tells about the time he delivered a farm shipment 30 miles away during a sleet storm.

"Were the roads slick?" I ask, thinking the truck must have been difficult to manage.

"I guess," she says. "But he was driving horses and a wagon."

She tells me how her mother never asked him for much, but did hold out hope that she would one day live in a stone house.

In the end, he got it for her by taking a job where such a sturdy, but modest dwelling was part of his employment.

It was the house where he died, my mother tells me, adding she was there when he passed away.

I'm quiet because I didn't know that. I'd always thought he died in a hospital.

But then, I imagine, there's a lot I don't know.

I look at this comfortable older couple, sitting on a back porch drinking ice tea, and I think of their funny, sad, complicated, simple, harsh, happy, loving, anxious and relaxed lives.

Much of it I know and much of it I don't.

Parents, I conclude, are mysteries, who, if you're lucky. will reveal an occasional secret.

That's why they tell you to always listen to them when you have the chance.



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