Every day in my practice as a counselor, I see how our lives are defined by relationships with others. Relationships shape, sustain and strengthen us. They give our lives meaning—our very identities. And relationships are still, as they always have been, enhanced by sharing our personal experiences and stories.
Several years ago, I befriended an elder who told wonderful stories about her life. One day I suggested we write them down as a gift for her family and she loved the idea. When we finished the project, my friend presented her collection of stories to her family. Her daughter burst into tears of joy and responded as if she had received the most valuable treasure imaginable. Then I realized that is exactly what she had been given—the gift of a lifetime. That was the day I became a passionate supporter of the important mission of capturing the living history of our times, one story at a time. I wish I had learned this lesson a little earlier. If I had, I’d know more about my father’s family.
My dad had only one living relative by the time I came along. His nephew, Bill lived in La Paz, Mexico with his Australian wife, Ena and their son, Bill, Jr. Dad was very fond of Bill and they were peas in a pod--adventurous and entrepreneurial. In the summer of my 14th year, Dad decided a visit was long overdue. At that time, there were no highways that ran that far into Baja California so the only option was to fly in. There were no commercial flights, either but Dad was a private pilot. I'll never forget that long, miserable trip in his Beechcraft Bonanza because I was dreadfully airsick. To be fair, I'm sure neither of my parents ever forgot it either because I was pretty dramatic about the whole affair. Fortunately, that's not the only reason the trip was memorable.
Located on the beautiful Sea of Cortez, La Paz was a sleepy fishing village. I loved exploring the tiny shops and watching people go about their day's work in an atmosphere so foreign it could have been another planet. I instantly fell in love with my new family members, especially my older second cousin who I followed about like a puppy. The four-footed occupant of the house was not the usual cat or dog but a badger named Shorty. Bill had rescued him from a trap and gave him that name because of his maimed hind leg. That handicap was unfortunate for Shorty but a blessing for the rest of us. We could hear him coming, sliding his bum leg across the polished tile floor and that gave us ample time to save our toes from his sharp teeth. Badgers are mean little creatures but he was putty in Bill's hands and often sought his rescuer out for attention.
I have always treasured the memories of that trip. Not only was it the only time I saw Bill, I got to see a side of Dad I’d not seen before. I looked up to my father and found there was very little he didn't know at least something about. When I'd ask him, "How did you know that?" his reply was always the same. He'd smile and say, "I passed by a schoolhouse once." Dad was interested in everything but was not keen on talking about himself. Bill filled in a few of the gaps but alas, I was too young to know the right questions. Now that I want answers, there is simply no one left to ask
Before my father was born, his father had already buried two wives and had two grown children. Life was hard for women in the early 1900s. My grandmother was his third wife so Dad's half-brother, Louie (Bills’ father) and half-sister, Bess were probably more like extra parents to him than siblings. All of them were gone by the time I came along and all I know about them is their names. There's not even a photo left behind. What could I have learned from them? What stories did they have to tell? Their stories will forever be left untold.