Wednesday, September 1, 2010
The power of stories told by dads
As Father’s Day has rolled round this year I’ve thought not so much of my own father but of my father-in–law, Richie, because I’ve also been thinking lots about the importance of family stories.
Richie told us a story the night after his wife Hilda’s funeral. It’s interesting how funerals bring out tales of days gone by. A key gets turned in our hearts at such times, and the door opens and out flow words that need saying.
He talked about the hard times in his early life and of a morning when he was just a small boy, living on the family dairy farm on the slopes of Mt Ngongotaha. It was a dark, freezing morning, early 1920s. Richie’s dad was out with the cows, as usual, when his mother came into the room he shared with his brother. They were still in bed.
“She looked so odd,” Richie remembered when he was himself an old man. “She came in and said, ‘I’ve just come to say goodbye, boys’. And then she turned and walked out of the house.’
Little Richie knew something was very wrong. He got up and raced out to the milking shed. ‘Dad, Dad!’ he cried. ‘Mum’s gone.’
A lifetime later, he could still remember the stricken expression on his father’s face as he ran out of the shed and down the frosty hill after his wife and brought her home again.
When I heard that story I felt for her. I wondered if, desperate to escape the hard-scrabble farming life, she just had to get away. But then, where would she have gone? Was she really going to leave her boys behind? How would she have made it on her own? Divorce was a great scandal then and social welfare non-existent.
Did she simply go back with a leaden heart and get on with things, because there was just no other option? Whatever, she stayed, and between them they raised a fine family.
You start to feel the impact of stories like that in midlife, because it’s only then that we’ve been through enough of our own dramas to know that life rarely turns out as we expect it to.
Of course even though we think we’re just ordinary, all our lives are rich with drama. But most of us cover up our hot-point moments because we think they’re too private, too painful or maybe too embarrassing to share. And yet it’s so vital for us to reveal them, not just because they can help other people cope with trouble, but because unloading our old hurts can be good for us too, leaving us feeling lighter and stronger.
“I used to think I’d be able to change the world,” one friend told me with rueful smile. “Then I realised I couldn’t do that. Then I thought you could change yourself, and came to see that wasn’t possible either. The good thing about getting older is that you finally begin to figure who you are in the big picture of things. I think now that what life’s all about is just being the hero or heroine of your own story – and sharing it with other people.’
Richie’s gone now too, but thanks, Poppa, for sharing. And thanks to all dads everywhere who’ve sat down with their families sometime and told them a true-life story, straight from the heart. Not enough blokes do that. And they’re stories we need to hear.
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