Unknown history

I flew out to British Columbia in the new year to visit my family.  My dad is failing quickly and my mom is still adjusting to life at home alone, so we thought it would be good to spend some time with both of them.  Dad doesn’t remember me anymore.  He doesn’t really remember mom anymore either, even though she visits him every day and feeds him his supper.  I’m not sure what to make of it.  I’ve been strangely unemotional.

For her birthday, my brother and I took my mom out for a nice dinner. We got to talking about dad and how every day mom needs to remind him who she is.  And then she’ll tell him stories from the past–how they met, where they lived when they got married, the work they did as a young couple.

And then somehow we started talking about mom’s pre-marriage life. It’s a fact that children usually are not privy to everything that goes on in their parents’ lives.  If there are problems at work, for instance, the kids usually don’t hear about it. At least, they don’t understand what they hear or don’t remember it. Only as children enter adulthood do some of these things from the past, which would have been meaningless to a child, come to light.

I knew, for instance, that mom had worked as a nurse in both England and France.  I didn’t know that she had done her nurses training in the Netherlands (we are Dutch). I knew that she had delivered many babies in her years as a midwife, but I did not know that she had studied midwifery in England.

And then it got more interesting yet. I knew that she had worked in France, but I didn’t know that she had first applied for work in Norway, but that given language requirements she chose Paris, France, instead, where she worked as a nurse and studied French at La Sorbonne, one of the oldest colleges at the western world’s oldest university.

And after France–and of this I knew nothing–my mom had applied to the U.N. to work in the middle east teaching women about hygiene. She was accepted and was supposed to go to Israel to learn Arabic.  This was unfortunately cancelled due to either the 6 Day War of 1967 or the White Revolution in Iran begun 1963 (given the years, I’m guessing it was the 6 Day War).

Then she met my dad, and the rest is history.  Isn’t that crazy? If we had never asked, I’d have spent the rest of my life thinking mom spent a few years working as a nurse before meeting my dad, getting married and raising us kids.  That’s not a bad story, of course–it’s a very important one, in fact–but it would have been incomplete, and it sheds light on mom’s adventurous and lively character.

I’d like mom to write a memoir.  Other people feel the same way.  I wish now, too, that I would have spent some time recording some of dad’s life stories as well.  As it is, I have small fragments of stories: German soldiers coming to their farm during World War Two; bombs blowing up so close to their farm that the barn roof jumped off the walls; traveling across Canada and working on farms.  Unfortunately, there are countless more unknown details than revealed facts.  We are left fragments of a story–more gap than story.

This is a lesson: ask your parents questions about their early lives, before they met each other.  Write it down.  Record it. There is much to be learned.

4 thoughts on “Unknown history

  1. Simon

    That there’s a lesson that we all would do well to follow, Marc. Our parents will be gone long before we are ready for them to go.

  2. Angie

    My grandpa passed away on New Year’s Day (he was almost 92), and finally in his last few years he told my mom and her sister about his early life. He had been disabled most of his life due to a terrible infection he had when he was a young child. No one really knew too many details, and grandpa was very private. We were asking his younger brother about it the other night and he was about 10 years younger than grandpa, so he only remembers so much. It is definitely good to ask questions and learn what you can, while you still can.

    I am sorry to hear about your dad’s decline. That must be tough for your mom to have to remind him every day of who she is.

  3. Linea

    It is strange isn’t it that memories and history seem to gian in value as they become more tentative and as we watch the approaching passage of time for our parents. Dad began to recount stories from the war that we never heard as children but by then it was too late to really ask him for reliable information.

    I sometimes think about writing down my own history for my grandkids – and I must. But I wonder if in reality I will have time.

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