“I remember Borges writing that we die twice, once when the body gives out and then the second and final death ‘when there is no one left to tell our story.'” (Chris Hedges)
My paternal grandmother was born 107 years ago today. She died in 1973 and I still miss her. I was thinking about who’s left to tell her story: my father, my mother, my brother and me — and that’s about it, as far as I know, except for one good friend of hers who is 96 years old and lives in a nursing home.
But does any of us really know her story? We all know things about her and stories about her, but at least in my case it’s not really her story. It’s just little scenes from that story.
I know that when she was a baby her father hung a poster of the flags of the world over her crib. He’d stand over her and point to each flag in turn, while saying the name of the country it belonged to. By the time she was two years old, she could name them all. (That was really my great-grandmother’s story, but it was about my grandmother.)
I know that she and her sister had scarlet fever when they were children, and were quarantined at their paternal grandmother’s house. There was a rug on the floor between the single beds they lay in, and they would lie in bed at night and peel off their dead skin, throwing it on the rug between them; each morning their grandmother would come in and clean it up. Despite the quarantine, their father would come visit them every morning before he went to work.
I know about the time when she was nine and her sister was six, and they were playing together when her sister fell in the river. When they returned home, my great-grandfather whipped my grandmother for letting her sister fall in the river. I remember her standing in her kitchen sixty years later telling me that story, and saying, “I never kissed my father again after that.”
I probably know a hundred little things like that about her, and because the newspaper in her home town printed a surprising amount of personal information — who played cards with whom and who won, and who attended whose birthday parties, and what they did there — I have access to much more information than I know on my own. But if I were to sit down to tell my grandmother’s story, could I knit those vignettes into a story? Is that really her story? I don’t know. I think her real story was something she carried inside herself, and perhaps the real story was known only to her. I think that’s the way it is with all of us. It’s surprising sometimes how people we’ve known all our lives can mistake our thoughts and motives. Sometimes that’s a mercy, since now and then they give us more credit than we’re due, but it means that your story is truly your own, and perhaps only your own.
As a genealogist, I read a lot of obituaries, and I’ve noticed a great change over the years. Where they used to say something like “John Doe died yesterday at County Hospital,” now they quite often say something like, “John Doe left from County Hospital yesterday to be with Jesus, after a long battle with cancer.” I find the religiosity distasteful and even cloying, but it tells you something about the deceased, or at least about his family.
Except for prominent people, most obituaries used to be bare recitations of personal connections. His parents were so-and-so. He belonged to this church and that club. Survived by his wife (who, many years ago, might have simply been referred to as “the widow”), three sons, four daughters, twelve grandchildren, two brothers and two sisters. Preceded in death by a son, a grandson, and a brother. Daughters and sisters, if they were married, were referred to by their husbands’ names: Mrs. Richard Roe. As if the only important things about you were your relations to others — and perhaps not always the relations that were most important to you, either.
Now there’s a tendency to mention more personal information. She loved sewing, and made quilts for all her grandchildren. He loved fishing and NASCAR. She loved to travel, and was an avid skier. He was friendly, and always had a kind word for everybody. In other words, families are trying — sometimes more successfully than others — to tell you something about the deceased and who they really were. They’re trying to tell that person’s story. It’s a good change.
We do the best we can to tell the stories of the people we loved and to keep them from that second death. But in the end, nobody can tell your story but you.
Some of my ancestors belonged to the Moravian Church, and they had a custom of recording each person’s story after he died. Naturally, they tended to dwell on their religious life, and there can be some surprising omissions. One of my ancestors wrote out his own story before he died, and never mentioned the names of his parents or his children. I have that information anyway; what I want to know is, what happened to his father after they came to America? He never tells us. It’s a record of what he thought most important: above all, his religious history. It’s not in every respect the story I wish he had told. But it’s his story, as he chose to tell it. He’s been dead more than two hundred years, but I can read it and have some sense of his life and who he was, or at least what he thought about his life and who he was. It’s a precious thing.
I guess what I’m saying is, tell those stories. Whose stories are you carrying around in your head, and who will remember them after you’re gone? And who will tell your story? Who better to tell it than you? Spend a small part of your life writing down the story of your life. Your life will go by fast enough, and when you’re gone, it may be that your friends and family will be glad to have your story in your own words.