This weekend I went up to visit my parents, as I generally do if I’m not driving down to see my fiancé. It’s a three-hour drive in Friday afternoon traffic, but compared to living clear across the country from them for nine years, it’s not so bad. I spent a lot of time this particular weekend talking with my mom and dad about our family history and their past.
My dad described the paradox that while parents know their children for their entire lives, by the time children come around, the parents have already been changed from who they were, just by their children’s existence. The only way we can know who our parents were are through the stories they tell. Hearing the stories of my mom dating as a teenager, or my dad goofing off during high school, is like being introduced to a stranger. I can’t reconcile them in my head with the calm, levelheaded people I’ve always known. The stories from their wedding are a litany of things going wrong, all hilarious once you’re thirty-four years removed.
My dad has this way of telling stories that draws you in, leaves you hanging on his next sentence. He has a measured way of speaking, combined with a flair for storytelling—for pacing, for when to reveal that crucial tidbit of information. He writes fiction, but his best stories are the ones that actually happened. Some of my best family memories are of sitting around the dinner table, enthralled as my dad tells one funny story after another about his and my mom’s past, or about my relatives.
This time, we talked about family members I never had the chance to meet, or to really get to know. I heard the story of how my great-grandfather (dad’s side) was known as a great pianist, but by the time my dad was around, he never played anymore. My dad wishes someone older from his family were still around so he could ask them why. I heard about how my great-grandmother (dad’s side) thought that she controlled her children’s lives, especially her daughter, my grandma, and that they owed her obedience. My parents told me that the way they raised me and my two younger sisters stems from my grandma making a conscious decision to not raise her son in the same way she was raised. She would raise him to think for himself, to question, to learn, and to follow his own path.
My parents live in the house that my father grew up in, so there’s a lot of memories swirling around us as we stand in the kitchen and chat (always the kitchen—only Trouble conversations happen in the living room). We took a walk after dinner on Saturday, the first pleasant evening in months. There’s old things on this road: long stone walls, pieces fit together without any mortar, built a hundred years ago and still standing; a springhouse with the doors knocked down that used to connect to a hotel, long abandoned; our hundred-year-old house; my father.
My dad is close to retirement, while my mom is nine years younger. The story of how they met and got together is ridiculous, and awesome, and tinged with a sense of luck. My dad was my mom’s eighth grade teacher (yeah, I know), during the single year in which he taught in Ohio and the single year her family lived there. She was his “Shadow” because they hung out during school and talked; I think my dad was the first person to encourage my mom’s love of reading and learning. After her family moved away they lost contact, until my mom sent a Christmas card to my dad during her first year of college. The rest, as they say, is history.
Actually the rest, as my dad says, is me and my two sisters. When I was a teenager we visited the school in Ashtabula, Ohio, where they had first met. Dad looked directly at me and said, “This is where you begin. If I hadn’t taught here for one year after graduating college… if Mom’s family hadn’t lived here for eight months… you wouldn’t be standing here right now.” When I think about the chances of my parents meeting, just at that time, just at that place, I feel a little thrill of awe, and fear. There are so many ways it could have ended up differently. It’s the same for me and my fiancé—we met at a summer internship on the opposite coast from where we both grew up and attended school. I had been offered the internship the year before, in a different location, and if I had attended that year instead…
On each side of my family, it’s an exponentially growing set of stories of chance, of meetings almost missed—like my great-grandparents (mom’s side) who met on the boat to America as they left their homes in England and Scotland. It goes further back in time to encompass hundreds (then thousands) of stories about two people who had to meet in just the right way to end up with me, here, and with him, now. Of course if it had happened any other way, some other person would be writing right now.
As the weekend wrapped up, I left my parents’ house to make the drive back, and I wished my dad a good drive as well. See, he only lives there on the weekends, as two years ago he took a job eight hours away, in another state. My parents planned for my mom to follow him, but life is complicated and circumstances changed. Now my mom and dad are long-distance-married, each of them trying so, so hard to get a job in which they can be together again. It’s really tough on my mom. My dad makes the drive nearly every single weekend to come back and visit her. I don’t know how he does it.
In fairy tales, when you get married, it’s supposed to be happily ever after. The story ends, because there is nothing more of interest to say. The trials have been overcome. Even in the real world, weddings signify an end to a certain kind of trial (waiting, wondering, hoping). I know I view my upcoming wedding, and the ending of my own seven years of long-distance, as the pinnacle of happy endings. We’ll finally be together—what more could we want? But of course, there are so many hardships we could face in the future, and some of them we will. The story doesn’t end after you meet and marry.
This part of my parents’ love story is very hard—no one could say it’s a “happily ever after” scenario. But through it they still giggle like kids at each other’s jokes, and treasure the time they have when they are together. They take their joy when they can, and wait patiently for the trial to be over. When my fiancé and I face challenges in our marriage, I hope we will look to my parents’ example and work through it with the same grace, kindness, and patience with each other. No matter what, I know we’re going to have some great stories to tell our kids.