Springsteen asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” but what happens to a story that doesn’t get told? Surely it disappears, right? Evaporates like so much dew as the sun warms the morning. But the events of that story, the lessons, do they disappear too? And the person who lived the story, who dreamed it up and made it a reality, what happens to that person, after he or she has passed on, if the story doesn’t get told?
I ask all of these questions because one of the great regrets I will take to my grave is that I never got my mother’s stories down on paper. Mom, who lived an amazing, interesting life shaping a field that is the coin of the realm in modern-day America, had stories so riveting that award-winning authors and screenwriters offered to help her get them published. Mom always declined, saying that such privacies and privileges had been entrusted to her by her clients, by her place in her industry, and that she wouldn’t betray that trust. I picked up where those writers left off, telling her that just letting people know what it was like to have worked with these famous people on such high-profile movies would suffice, that she wouldn’t have to divulge any secrets and insider scoop.
In recent years, Mom had begun to lighten up a bit. I bought Dragon Dictate transcription software and we created her profile on this laptop. The plan was we’d talk for an hour or two and after a few months I’d have a pile of notes and quotes that I could edit into the book many had hoped she’d one day write.
We did one brief session where she recounted her early days in Brooklyn and Malverne, New York, but then she put me off a few times and I didn’t press her. Months later, she warmed up a bit again and asked if we were going to resume talking but it never happened, not before she took her fall in October and the chance for us to ever talk again disappeared.
I find myself wracked with guilt over having let Mom take those stories with her. Many people have said I could talk to those my mother worked with and get a similar book, but it really wouldn’t be the same. Who can I ask about what it was like to walk down Park Avenue with Marilyn Monroe for a photographer? Countless other similar tales are now gone, and though there are photos to illustrate the events, the faces on the film are mute and they keep their secrets to themselves.
And now I find myself once again facing the similar loss of equally amazing stories. As has been chronicled in this space, my father and I are currently on the outs, not talking, not really getting along at all. We are, to stay with Springsteen quotes, “too much of the same kind,” it seems. But I’ve written before of my father’s World War II service and how I believe it affected everything in his life to this day. Of how he is still in the Ardennes, almost 70 years later. I’ve written that seeing what he’s gone through, what he’s missed out on, is too high a price for anyone or any country to pay. And make no mistake about it: he saw some serious shit at a way-too-young age not to have suffered.
The tales of those experiences, and those of others like my father, shouldn’t be lost to the mists of time. They should be enshrined so that hopefully we as a society can stop making the same mistake over and over and over again. And on a personal level, getting him to share those stories would hopefully give our family something we’re still seeking: an answer to the question, “why?,” that has pervaded the entirety of half a century.
My father also has some amazing stories to share that aren’t focused on war. There aren’t many people left of whom I can ask, “What was it like to drink with Hemingway in Cuba?,” but my father is one such person. I’ve heard the story many times, but to get it on paper would preserve the tale for my nieces and their children and on down the line.
Maybe, as it turns out, I never was a very good journalist, because I don’t know how to break through the wall to get to the great stories. I let Mom’s stories get away and I don’t know how to reach my father to save his stories. And that’s a shame. Because we as human beings think in language, in words, in stories. And we as societies live in the exchange of that language, of those words, of those stories. If our stories don’t get told and shared and passed down, do we really live?