A Conversation for the Ages

The first two words of Mary Oliver’s poem are ‘tell me.’ Everyone has a story, and everyone harbors a secret desire for others to ask us to tell it. At present we have the honor of listening to Mariah’s mom Rosie, as she tells us her stories of life at age 90. We’re recording her voice, asking her about every aspect of her one wild and precious life, its ups and downs, its ins and outs. This conversation for the ages is exactly the kind of project I wish I’d had with my own parents. It’s gratifying, interesting, amusing, happy and sad by turns. And it feels so good to see Rosie light up as the narrative flows, and recollections come to her. As shy as she is, she’s happy we asked.

Rosie is a bit reluctant to tell us her tales; she’s not one to volunteer much. But once we get her started, she rambles on and on about life on the farm, her eight siblings, mom and dad, school, holiday events, and every aspect of her life in rural Iowa. Some of her anecdotes are insightful and funny.

Here’s a sample: When she first learned to drive, she was motoring along with her dad, doing the best she could as a rookie driver. Her father said “you’re weaving around, driving like Joe Digney!” It turns out Joe was the town drunk. Rosie smiled at the memory, then she embellished it a bit, to put it in the best light, as she always does: “Everybody liked Joe Digney.”

I wish I’d asked my parents to tell me their story. They’re both gone now. It’s too late. I have fond memories of them, scattered bits and pieces of things they touched, photographs of them, and their DNA of course, which I assume is where I got my sensitive nature, my impulse to go straight at life heart-first, the admixture that prods me to such regrets as this. It came from them. But what treasure trove of knowledge did I miss?

My Parents in 1946

The two love crazed kids above had quite a story to tell. Shortly after this black & white picture was taken their wild and precious lives took off in technicolor, as they did their part in making the baby boomer generation anomalous, helping to fill maternity wards to the rafters. I never once asked them to ‘tell me’ about it.

My mother was Irish in every sense of the word. Mary Martha Barrett had a heart as big as the Donegal sky, and she wore it in plain sight. Mom took in strays. She always placed an extra dinner plate, just in case. She cried at card tricks. My father, the outwardly stoic Englishman tried to hide his warm and fuzzy side, but his compassion and caring poked through anyway, allowing his warm and gentle soul to show, and to override his stiff-upper-lipped British side. I never asked about their lives, darn it, and I wish I had.

This much I do know: They produced ten kids in the span of 19 years. I’m number two of that brood. Irish-Catholic family tradition assigned me, number two son, the role of family priest. I became the family writer and archivist instead. But it didn’t occur to me to write the story directly in front of me, the tale my parents had to tell: Their mid-war meeting; their courtship in the summer of ’42; their marriage and settling in time, as unsettled as it must have been surrounding themselves with diapers and bottles and baby-bills. I simply never asked. It wasn’t until my dad was dying in 2006 that it occurred to me to archive his story. By then he was much too feeble, too fragile, and quite deaf, so our conversation for the ages never happened.

Thus, our conversation with Rosie

This is what drives us to record and archive Rosie’s story. Every night over dinner we listen to Rosie tell her life tale of 90 + years. We choose questions from a list we’ve put together, itemizing such things as early farm life, her eight siblings, chores, holiday events, good times and bad times, the Depression, the War, her courtship with Mariah’s dad and their marriage, her own six kids, and the loss of the last one. We’re asking Rosie to tell us about her one wild and precious life. ‘Tell me’, we say. And she does.

So, coming soon, we’re going to compile many of Rosie’s stories in book form, and offer them around to family and anyone else interested, with her approval, of course. If there’s an elder, a father, or mother, or grandparent or just an older friend you’d like to memorialize, rest assured they’re likely more than happy to share their saga with you. Try it. Just say ‘Tell me…’

Thanks for reading.