“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”
I’ve always been a teller of stories. When I see someone whom I haven’t seen for a long time, I tell them stories. My life is a collection of stories. I think in narrative. That’s one reason why when I discovered the preaching of Gene Lowry I was astonished. He teaches Narrative Preaching. It was the kind of preaching that I was already trying to do, and here there was a name for it. And one of the best preachers I’ve known was doing it.
I’m confused when people listen or read a story I’ve told and tell me it’s not right. There have been people who have refuted what I’ve said. MY story. I’m the one that lived it, felt it, experienced it, cried through it, laughed through it, been scarred and inspired by it. No one can tell another person that their story simply isn’t true. If my story offends you, that doesn’t make it not true. Or if my story reveals something that makes you uncomfortable, that’s something you must deal with and ask yourself why. But no one has the authority to tell someone else that their story isn’t true. Sure, we do it all the time, and throughout history, it’s true that the stories that make us feel better are the ones that get told. History has been most often told by the winners. We don’t like the dark side of our histories. But it’s there.
Then sometimes we find out that the stories we were told were not entirely true, or were missing key parts. My father remained a mystery to me my whole life. He didn’t reveal a lot about himself. His whole life in India–his first 20 years– is a book that we couldn’t open. My brother sent me Dad’s Bible that he had when he was just 18 years old, still living in what is now Mumbai. I cannot imagine my father ever being that young. I’ve seen pictures of a painfully skinny, darker-skinned, black-haired young man looking like he would get sand kicked in his face at the beach. But it’s hard to see that young man as my father.
His Bible is underlined in various colors, especially the New Testament. He made notes here and there. He was a passionate young Christian, then, eager to spread the Gospel. He volunteered in a Student Christian Movement that did just that. He came to the US in 1949, two years after India gained independence. He was there for the violence of Partition, the riots and killings. He never spoke of it.
I don’t know what his life was like those first 20 years. I don’t know anything about my grandfather, Percy, who died when Dad was 14. Until Facebook, I didn’t even know who my cousins on Dad’s side were. I’ve seen pictures of other darker skinned, black haired people that are my aunts and uncles, now all deceased. My grandmother, Jesse, I know, gave birth to 11 children, only 6 of which survived. She lost 5 children and a husband. She had to be a tough lady to survive. I never got to meet her, as she lived on the other side of the world. I wish I had.
She was Indian, but for some reason hated all things Indian, and raised my father to love all things British. Until a few years ago, I thought my father was a British subject with a little bit of Indian blood. But we learned that Grandma Michael was 100% Indian, and Grandpa Percy had a good percentage of Indian in him. Further back, there’s some English blood mixed in. But Dad was more Indian than he knew. Or at least told us.
I don’t know his story, just bits and pieces. It seems that my three brothers and I all experienced Dad differently. I came 7 years after the youngest son, and wasn’t a part of my brother’s lives for the most part, growing up. When Dad was young, with three sons, he played football with other pastors, preached from the Bible, didn’t want Mom to wear a swimming suit in public. But the father I knew had “graduated” into psychology, and focused more on self-help type sermons, throwing a little verse in there to make it churchy. I learned the Bible from my mother, or from a variety of other people who crossed my path. The father I knew wore a tie all the time, would never be caught dead in a pair of jeans, and never played football. Or played much at all.
The four of us have different stories about our parents. Being the last in line and the only girl, my stories differ a lot from my brothers’, though some coincide. For a long time, I was hesitant to tell my stories. We all form our own impressions of someone who is in leadership. I do, I know. I’ve learned that sometimes my impressions don’t always match with who they are at home, out of the public eye. Of course, with some celebrities we are completely disillusioned. We don’t want to believe the “other” stories. Who wanted to give up that fun, loving image of Bill Huxtable, or the guy advertising Jello with little kids–to accept the REAL story? We’d rather just say it can’t be true.
There are stories I will never know about my father, because he didn’t want to tell them. He told himself and others for 80-some years that he was a subject of the “British Empire,” and he stuck to it. It made him feel better than being an Anglo Indian in British-occupied India. He wanted to side with the “winners.” Don’t we all?
I don’t fault him for that, but it was confusing to find out that a lot of the stories I was told simply weren’t true. I know also, that we tell ourselves stories all the time to feel better. And after a while, we believe them. Don’t tell us any different.
At my mother’s funeral, I learned from a cousin, that before Mom met Dad, she regularly preached revivals! My Mom! Cousin Landon laughed through the tears in his eyes, telling me how he went with her, and was always amazed at how people were literally rolling in the aisles, “slain by the Spirit,” and my Mom kept on preaching the Word. I never knew that. My mother was always a devout Christian, studying the Bible diligently, marking them up (she had several translations) and underlining and making comments. She kept a journal for years, reflecting on the Bible passage of the day and what it meant for her life. That never stopped or wavered. But I never got to hear my mother preach.
I would have loved that.
This all makes me realize, of course, that there are a lot of stories that I don’t know about either of them, and may never know. They didn’t tell.
We’ve learned a lot about our ancestors in Southern Mississippi. It’s certainly not all pretty, but how can it be, knowing what we know about the South in those days? I have ancestors that fought for the Confederates in the Civil War– I got to visit their graves. Some fought in the Revolutionary War. Some owned slaves and some were even slave traders. Those are the hard stories. They’re unpleasant. But I believe we have to tell the hard stories as well as the good stories to know who we really are.
It’s human nature to want to be known, to be seen, and to be heard. It’s hard when someone won’t listen, or refuses to believe us. Or only wants to believe the good stuff. We need to tell. We need to be heard. We need to be connected. And believed.
One of the many joys of working as a hospice chaplain was hearing the stories people told me of their lives. People who are dying want to know that their lives mattered. The good, the bad, the hard struggles, the triumphs and the failures; all of it is the stuff of a life and is part of who we are. The images people have of us are no less true just because they don’t know the whole story. Those images are part of us as well.
I think my daughter knows me pretty well, certainly better than I knew my parents, because I wanted her to know me. Sure, there are stories that she doesn’t know, and may only discover after I’m gone– because knowing her, she will dig out all my journals and read them! And I trust she’ll love me just the same.
In a couple of years we hope to go to India to get a sense of the culture in which my father grew up. I want to get a deeper sense of that world, so foreign to me, and maybe understand why he didn’t want to own it. To see the world that shaped him. And, I think, haunted him.
Maybe I’ll learn something.