Wide Awake: Just Ask
The right questions can get you all kinds of stories

In this job, the thought that “everyone has a story” is reinforced pretty often. Sometimes that message comes crashing through, like when my mom tells me she was born dead, and then revived because they dunked her in ice cold water, then steamy hot water.

I made her repeat that. And explain it a few times. Not only is the story amazing, but I also couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard it before. How does that not become a family story that is recounted a few times?

This info all came up because I gave my mom possibly one of the greatest Christmas gifts ever. (And yes, I did kind of yell that to my brother and sister when my mom opened it. I may have raised my arms up in the air like I was the Christmas Champion too.)

It’s something called StoryWorth, and every Monday she is emailed a question about her life. I got to select the questions from a long list. She then writes her answer and emails it back to the company. At the end of the year, they create a book containing all the questions and answers. As the purchaser, I’m cc’d on all the emails, so I get to read her answers early.

The account of her birth answered the question: What stories have you been told about yourself as a baby? My mom is a twin, and she was born 18 hours after her brother (they are twins with different birthdays). The birth took place at home and when my mom came out, she didn’t have a heartbeat. The doctor, who apparently made house calls, got two buckets of water – one ice cold, one hot – and he dunked her, back and forth, between both. Eventually she started to cry.

I mean, really, there’s so much to break down there.

But then the next week’s question arrived: What was your mother like when you were a child? So this will be my mom talking about my grandmother, who was alive when I got married but not when I had children.

I had known my grandmother was raised in an orphanage and didn’t know her parents or even what her true last name was. But that isn’t what my mom wrote about. She talked about life at home during her childhood, how her mother was the disciplinarian and used a cat-and-nine tail, which I had to google. Turns out it’s this scary-looking whip they now sell on Amazon, only it seems it’s used for a completely different purpose today.

My grandmother could sew, so she made all her children’s clothes. (I already knew that, because she made mine too.) She did laundry every Monday, ironed on Tuesdays, and cleaned the rest of the week. She had dinner on the table every night at 6 pm when my grandfather arrived home from work. But the shocker: my grandmother worked the nightshift at a printing company. She put her kids to bed, went to work and arrived home before they woke up. She slept during the day, somewhere between the laundry and cleaning and cooking and sewing.

My mom ended her answer with: “How lucky I was to have Dorothy Rose Klein as my mom.”

I’ve discovered my mom started an office job the day after she graduated high school. She took gymnastics, which I didn’t know existed in the ’30s, gave my dad a watch that would wind when he moved his wrist – that was a big deal – and her parents bought a “summer place,” aka fixer-upper, at a lake here in Williamstown. Her parents and her siblings rehabbed the house and went on to have many wonderful summers there.

It’s funny how we so rarely ask the people close to us questions about their lives. We live side by side, day after day, not knowing all of their important moments. Usually, we only know the ones we were there for, and that’s a loss.

I don’t know how to fix that, unless I buy everyone this gift, which is unlikely. If you think about it, many people would be too busy to type and send their answers.

Maybe the next time I’m out to dinner with friends and there is an awkward silence, I’ll just ask, “What stories have you been told about yourself as a baby?” The looks I get might be a little weird, but the stories will be awesome.

Read more from Marianne Aleardi

February 2020
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