I’ve always been a collector of stories. Some schools call that journalism, or, nowadays, blogging, but from the earliest times I can remember, I have loved sitting and hearing the stories of the world around me. Growing up in a hair salon may have fed this inclination. Perhaps this is why I’ve become a voracious reader and a consumer of the interwebs. With each bite I take of a story, I digest it; it becomes a part of me.
It is no surprise, then, that my favorite feast has always been stories of my family. When I was a young girl, I would stay the night with my grandma Mary and grandpa Bill and I simply would not go to sleep until grandma had told me 83 stories of her childhood. The time great-grandpa Gustin made her work in the garden before a big date and then threw tomatoes at her. The time she was a supporting role in Aunt Glenna’s school play, and she would come home from play practice with her, and one evening, a young gentlemen drove them home (in horse and carriage, no less!) and he put his arm around Aunt Glenna. Grandma Mary was aghast! Immediately grandma Mary told the story to the sisters and her parents. An hour later, Aunt Glenna came into her room to threaten grandma Mary “now don’t you tell mom and dad about that boy having his arm around me!” And grandma, the self-proclaimed chicken, lied and said she wouldn’t tell.
On Saturday night, my mother, my sister and I invited several family members and friends to celebrate my father’s 60th birthday. It was a glorious day at the lake, filled with food, laughter, and of course, stories. Those happen automatically with this group. I’ve never left a gathering without another “remember the time when.”
In our invitation, I asked our guests to come with their best Tom Story. It was mostly a means of saying, “please don’t bring a gift” but I heard from several that they were working hard at bringing their favorite. My wise husband decided these simply needed collected, so he went around asking each person to tell their Tom story on camera and then compiled them all onto one video. W surprised him when we set up a sheet and projector and the whole party sat back to watch the Stories of Tom.
Do you know what I love about stories? They have as much to do with the teller as the subject of the story. So much of life is subjective. Our experiences color the moment. Which, with this particular group of people, adds depth and texture to the stories. These memorable moments connected my father with each person, as if they had been knit together through the hours and days they had shared.
We belong to one another. That’s why we tell these stories. Nothing warms my heart more than to know my father has been woven into the fabric of our community so deeply, so tightly, that no one struggled to tell a story. Tim said, “choosing a favorite Uncle Tom story is like trying to pick a favorite kid.” Everyone has a trove of stories because my dad is, in his nature, a deeply connected person. When he connects with others, he doesn’t stature; there’s little posturing in his way of being with people.
He doesn’t speak from above or below. It’s as if he comes up beside you and wraps an arm around you, much like Aunt Glenna’s secret boyfriend, so you know that you’re loved and included. And then he says something ridiculously funny. His naturally generous nature seeps into his way of life, leading toward a propensity for hospitality. Not only is everyone welcome, but everyone is welcomed. Verbally, loudly, with a beer. And good luck trying to slip out early – he’ll be adamant about one more card game, boat ride, or – “really, just stay for the night and get up early to get where you need to be.”
I’ve noticed a new theme in the stories of my father, now that he has hit the crest of 60 years of age. Where he used to be leading us forward, facing the future, he how tends to walk with his back to that direction, looking at those who follow in his wake, like a guide who intimately knows the land. He has less and less interest at where he is going – because his ultimate destination is assured – and spends his best moments considering the future of the next and the next generations.
Last year on Father’s Day we celebrated at the family lakehouse. We toasted to my grandpa Bill, as my father pointed out and celebrated the foresight he had to invest in our treasured lake spot in 1971. “Did he know we would need this long driveway for the kids to ride bikes and scooters?” I heard him ponder, this past weekend. “How did he know this location on the lake would be so perfect?”
I see my father looking to the wisdom of his father, the way he invested in an unseen, un-guaranteed future with humility. Grandpa Bill didn’t give his boys everything – though there was an incident with new satellite dishes in the 1980s which caused a rift with my mother – but my family legacy is to give the gift of wisdom, the gift of hospitality, the gift of thinking forward. (The family legacy is also the ability to find a way to do it cheaper and better, also known as “Wingfielding that Up.”)
Because we started on a farm – and some of the best stories from the cousins came from riding with Tom in a truck to this field or that – when I ran across a line from poet Wendell Berry, it sung to me.
“So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute…
…Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant
that you will not live to harvest.”
As we toast to my father’s 60 years on this earth – and to 60 more, I hope – you will find me over here, feasting on the stories. My dad has become a successful man; he lacks little (yet still computes the cheapest way for us to eat at a fast food restaurant. “You might as well get the value meal for the extra $0.65”). It was only with his help that I bought my first car, first house, first anything.
Yet, I would propose, his greatest achievement is the way he loves people and welcomes them. He has left me with a legacy of the importance of good friendships and strong family ties. He has fed my soul with stories that describe what life on earth is really about: loving people.
Happy birthday, dad.