Telling stories: Grandpa’s life sheds light on the lives of family who follow
I’ve been working on editing my grandfather’s life story.
He passed away a few months ago. In the final days of his life, he spent a good deal of time and energy putting as many details of his life as he could remember down on paper.
It’s not a very long story, even though Grandpa lived to be 83 years old. The prose isn’t literary — Grandpa was an accountant, not a writer, and his story is characteristic of his profession: matter-of-fact and straightforward. Even though my grandfather’s writing style may not be particularly gripping, his story is.
Its amazing the weight just a few sheets of paper can carry.
We writers often refer to our pieces as stories. It’s an odd name, when you think about it. But I still like it better than the other common name we give our work: article. While story is, perhaps, a bit of a misnomer — it’s not fiction, after all; at least in the newspaper business, it better not be — it also avoids the cold impersonality of the word article.
Articles are simply objects that may or may not matter. They’re means to other ends and have no intrinsic value. Articles can belong to anyone; there’s no ownership — things only get names when we make them our own.
No one ever says “Let me tell you my article.” No, it’s always a story when it belongs to someone.
Reading Grandpa’s vignettes — glimpsed silhouettes of childhood memories and shadowbox reconstructions of events long passed into history — I conjure a vivid new image of the man I thought I knew through and through.
Despite the barriers of paper, ink, time and the grave, I feel as close to my grandfather as if we were sitting together in the den. There is intimacy in these stories closer than conversation.
Stories aren’t just the recounting of events or trivial entertainments that help us pass the time. Stories make the fertile ground where we grow our lives.
My grandfather’s story is the soil that sprouted the man he became.
Reading about the boy whose father was murdered by his uncle in a fit of jealous rage, who was nearly killed when the horses pulling his plow bolted and ran, the man who lost his wife to ovarian cancer, I begin to see more clearly who my grandfather was and who my mother is and who I am. A family’s story unfolds chapter after chapter; every life is another entry that builds on what came before.
Grandpa’s story is my story too.
Timothy Hankins is a musician, writer and critic who contributes regularly to Weekend. Contact him at (firstname.lastname@example.org)