October 23, 2012

Everybody Has a Story; Once Written It Can’t Be Erased

NYTimes headline: Lance Armstrong stripped of 7 titles
Headline is a written page of his life
TV talked in the background—Armstrong Stripped of WinsBig Tex Ends StateFair in Fiery Demise—as we settled onto comfy chairs at our writing group’s favorite restaurant. We shared dismay over both front-page situations, but those stories were finished pieces. We met to work on stories in progress.
Near the bottom of my second cup of coffee, a stranger passing by asked if we were writers. Yes, even published writers. The stranger said he had written a book and added that he was the famous (infamous?) Lance’s adopted dad.
I claim my own connections to that celebrity: one time English teacher and neighbor. Since my father raised doubting, but not gullible, daughters, I vetted this man.
“Where did Lance go to middle school? What street did he live on?”
Correct answers to both.
The conversation was on. Or rather his story, the other side of the story we’ve all heard and read in the half dozen books about America’s cyclist—from Lance's own autobiography, to his mother’s version, to one written for 2nd graders for a “CharacterBuilders Series.“
A new telling, written by this father, the father the cyclist claims is “deceitful,” could be the next big read. Every skirmish has two sides. This one is no different. 
To hear Dad Armstrong’s version, he pounded the pavement as a salesman to afford his wife and son every expensive, and desired, toy—including membership to a country club with an ambitious swim team. By the time Lance reached a double-digit age, he and friends were butterflying and lightning-stroking their team to victories. The dad confessed that writing revealed to himself the ah-ha truths that we all wish we had known when younger. It’s a story of a parent’s “what if's.” What if the family had continued church attendance? What if the dad had seen the danger in too young celebrity? In hearing Monday’s death knell, we thought of “what if’s.” What if he had come in 7th or 17th in France? Would his cancer survival have been less inspiring?
Even with new insight, this dad’s book won’t change the outcome. It might be met with disinterested shrugs, or his story might let us recognize pivotal choices that could have changed a future.
Cycling’s governing body has chosen to say that the Armstrong Era never officially happened. Their edict will erase him from the record books, but it won’t erase his life—good or bad. Thousands of stories in multiple languages have permanently preserved it.
Hand writing in book
We must write down
our stories to keep them.
The rest of us, whose lives are not the stuff of newspaper stories, haven’t such tangible sources to leave behind. We have to depend on our own photos in albums. (Photos that sometimes raise more questions than they answer. Where was this taken? Who are those people? What was happening?) Or oral recountings. (that are forgotten or changed in the retellings). Unless someone—ourselves—writes them down, our stories remain “I wonder if’s.”
Sometime ago, I committed to paper my family’s saga of burying our cat—the favorite story that is recited to every captive newcomer to the family. A sister challenged my story’s accuracy. Her version would have paid our brother a dime for the burying deed while I recorded the payment as a quarter. She’s probably right.
Without details written on the timeline of your life, the question of a dime or a quarter can’t be asked. Because no one will know the story, that a little brother was paid once by big sisters to bury the cat three times.

Consider what you wish you knew about your grandfather. About Great aunt Gertrude or your pioneer relative born during the 1800’s.  Think about the tales slipping away today as your parents grow older. What stories do your children not know about the early days of your marriage—stories you need to get down quickly before they are forgotten as though they never happened? For a start, try simply listing the topics of those stories. Share them with us here.

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