“Hmm, okay, twenty-eight. Ooh, that’s a good one.”
Despite living with him for thirteen years, I knew very little about my dad. He worked three jobs and traveled a lot. When he was in town, he came home exhausted from a hundred-mile round-trip commute.
My mom spoke very little of him after he died, consumed as she was with the lonely and impossible task of raising three kids by herself two time zones away from any other relatives while working full time.
I’ve often wondered how much my kids would remember of me if I keeled over today. The situation is different — I’m much more involved in my kids’ lives for several reasons — but I wanted a way of sharing myself and my life with my kids in a natural way.
About five or six years ago, without even meaning to, I found a way. We started a storytelling tradition in our family called “age stories.” Simple premise–the kids pick an age, and I tell about something that happened to me at that age. It’s become one of their favorite bedtime story options.
Through age stories, they now know about my life at age 4 (broken arm, courtesy of my hobby at the time–walking on a row of metal trash cans), age 9 (I stole a pack of Rollos from Target and felt so bad I fed them to my dog, nearly killing her), age 21 (when I dumped my first girlfriend and got dumped by the second one), 23 (my crushing fear and uncertainty on graduating college), 25 (the cool job that allowed me to meet Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., Jimmy Stewart, Elton John, and a hundred other famous types), 26 (when I pursued and stole their mother’s affections from the studley Air Force pilot she was practically engaged to), what happened on the days they were born, and everything — really, at this point, just about everything — in between.
They know how I tricked a friend into quitting pot (for a night, anyway, at 15), the surreal week that followed my dad’s death (13), how I nearly cut off two fingers by reaching under a running lawnmower (17, shutup), my battles with the college where I taught (40), the time I was nearly hit by a train in Germany (38) and nearly blown off a cliff in a windstorm in Scotland (42).
Age stories can also open up important issues in an unforced way. Delaney happened to ask for “eleven” (the year my parents moved us from St. Louis to LA) right before her parents moved her from Minneapolis to Atlanta — a very difficult time for her. I described my own tears and rage, and the fact that I had held on to my bedpost the day of the move — and how well it turned out in the end. I wasn’t surprised when she asked for “eleven” again and again during that hard transition in her own life.
We’ve talked about love, lust, death, fear, joy, lying, courage, cowardice, mistakes, triumphs, uncertainty, embarrassment, and the personal search for meaning in ways that no lecture could ever achieve. They’ve come to know their dad not just as the middle-aged monkey he is now, but as a little boy, a teenager, a twentysomething, stumbling up the very path they’re on now.
And they keep coming back for more.
Give it a try. Make it dramatic. Include lots of details and dialogue. Have fun. Then tell us how it went.