Earlier this week, I drove north to meet a friend who was in Denver on business. He and I have been close for more than 30 years, but haven’t lived in the same part of the country since I moved to Colorado 12 years ago. So when we get a chance to catch up in person, it’s a no-brainer.
Because we’ve been friends for so long, we know each other’s families pretty well. Last night, we got talking about his mom. She is one of the most giving people I know — I can’t tell you how many weekends she fed, clothed, and/or housed me during my adolescence. Translated into real numbers, it’d easily be a five-figure debt that I’ve amassed to her and my friend’s stepfather, one offset by way too few “thank yous.”
While the two of us talked, I realized I’ve also gypped her in another way. I’ve never really sought to understand how she got to where she is. As is true with many mother or father figures, a two-dimensional view has been enough.
Over dinner, my friend told me a little bit about her past. Turns out both of her parents died early. She lost a brother while she was in her 20s. As a young woman she extracted herself, and two toddlers, from a failing marriage and went back to school to become a registered nurse who could support a family.
By the time my friend and I met in second grade, she had moved to another chapter. She had recently fallen in love and married a man whose prior business success vaulted the family into a comfortable lifestyle.
In short, I never knew her as a survivor. I knew her as a success. And anyone who didn’t know her before, say, 1985 may think of her, simplistically, in the same way. Hell, if something were to happen to my friend, there’s a chance that her own grandkids might think of her the same way.
This, I was reminded, is one of the most compelling arguments for pursuing a personal history. Anyone who’s been on this Earth for 60, 70, 80 years has basically lived a bunch of different lives. And each of those lives influences who that person is today. So for us to really understand someone we love, we need to understand the past as they’ve lived it.
In other words, we need to hear that person’s stories.