I curled up in my bed a couple weeks ago and watched a movie called Sarah’s Key. The movie was good and I’ve heard that the book is excellent, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. As the movie begins, the narrator is writing a letter to her daughter and she says,
Sometimes if a story is never told, it becomes something else, forgotten.
Obviously, I loved that line, because I think of myself as a storyteller. I think that sharing our stories is the most powerful way we have to learn about the world and how to be in it. I put that line away in my memory, happy that another author had captured the way I feel.
But as I was opening Christmas cards this week, I came across one that jogged the memory of that line and I thought it was a story that should not be forgotten. Among the usual assortment of polished photos and professional printing jobs, I opened one card and was immediately brought to tears. There was a picture in this one as well, a multigenerational family photo. Everyone had a huge smile, except for the matriarch of this crew. She was looking sideways, away from the camera lens, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think that the photographer had just caught her by surprise. But I know better. I know how that woman would have had a brilliant smile directed at that camera, beaming with pride if she had any choice in the matter. But she doesn’t. She’s forgotten her story. This beautiful woman, loving mother of 6 children, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 57, and over the last 10 years, she’s forgotten most, if not all of her story.
This is the story I wish she still knew, the story I would tell her.
“Peggy, you are the sweetest woman I ever knew. I remember coming to your house throughout my childhood, after school, for Sunday dinners and youth group meetings. A hug from you was like being embraced by an angel on earth. It held all the promise of heaven, but allowed for the realities of the day. Your devotion to your husband and affection for your children was a model to me of the kind of wife and mother I wanted to be. In your hallway, you had a wall of portraits, 8x10s of your kids’ school and prom pictures. It was a proud moment for me when I made it up on that Wall of Fame as your only son’s senior prom date. At one point while washing dishes in your kitchen, your son and I promised to marry each other if we were still single at the old age of 30. We weren’t, but I might have waited, just to become your daughter-in-law. In your own words, it would have been ‘the best.’ Everything you loved, everyone you met, was simply ‘the best,’ said with a clap of your hands. And it didn’t matter how many times I heard you say it about everything from trash bags to TV shows, when you said it about me, I believed you.
You raised 6 wonderful children, who are raising wonderful children. You have lived a beautiful story Peggy and when it’s over, I know you will rediscover all the parts that you missed and love every bit of it.”
The movie, Sarah’s Key, ends with these words:
So I write this for you, my daughter, with a hope that one day when you’re old enough, this story that lives with me will live with you as well. When a story is told, it is not forgotten; it becomes something else: a memory of who we were, the hope of what we can become.
I write this thinking of her 5 daughters and son, with their big brown eyes and radiant smiles, knowing that her story lives on in them. I write this knowing that contemplating that Christmas card was like hearing Peggy’s story all over again, reminding me of who I was in her eyes and who I hoped to become, someone who would always be ‘the best,’ at least to her.
PostScript: Thinking about this family’s story prompted me to look at all of the Christmas cards I’ve received in a new light. Each one captures a moment in time, the story a family is trying to tell at this point in their lives. Some are glamorous; some are more realistic, but none of them want to be forgotten. I think I will take a little more time to look at them this year, to remember the stories we’ve shared over the years together. And if there is one that needs to be retold, one that helped me become who I hoped to be, like Peggy’s, I am not going to be afraid to share it, so that it won’t be forgotten. I hope you find the time and the courage to do the same.