My father is a talker. I mean, good luck getting a word in edgewise, and don’t expect a phone call to last less than an hour. Some people find it tiresome. Hang around a while, and you’re bound to hear some reruns, told with exactly the same words. Being an active listener can wear a person out. Yes, no, wow, uh-huh, really. But Dad tells good stories. At 91, he has a lot of them.
I suspect he is part of the reason I became a writer and why I write the kinds of things I do. Dad is not a writer. He grew up working on a prune ranch, worked on airplanes in World War II and ultimately became an electrician. Until he retired, he didn’t read much. But he knows how to make a story. His stories have characters, dialogue, suspense, all the good stuff we writers strive for. Like me, he’s curious, and he’s nosy. I may have unconsciously learned to shape stories listening to him all these years. I added lots of formal education, but the basics came from Dad.
Back home on an extended visit, I have been taking notes on Dad’s stories, just as I used to do with my grandfather, another great storyteller. Dad’s stories reach back to 1922 and include his grandfather’s work driving a horse-drawn road-watering truck on San Jose’s dirt roads and later running a service station even though he knew very little about cars; his own youth on the ranch on Dry Creek Road; his experiences in Australia, the Philippines and New Guinea during the war; epic fishing and camping trips; travels across the country, tales about various family members, and his most recent trip to the bank.
Yesterday he brought out stacks of unorganized photos for me to see. We sat together on the fold-out couch in the sunny middle bedroom-turned den and went through them one by one. It was a slow process because every picture had a story. It knew as it happened that this was a blessing for both of us. Nobody else takes the time to look and listen, he says, but I find it fascinating. This is my history. I want as much as I can get. You can’t learn this kind of stuff on the Internet, and Dad, the last of the older generation, won’t be around forever.
The stories continued at dinner. I took notes on my paper napkin. I thank God for this time, even though it has thrown my work all off schedule. I haven’t blogged in over a week. I haven’t even gotten online much (no WiFi), but does it matter?
I’ll bet your family has stories, too, especially the older ones. Ask them questions. Ask to see the old photos—remember film and pictures you could hold in your hand?—and ask for the stories behind them. It could be a beautiful experience for both of you.