Friday was my conception day. Yes, I happen to know the day I was conceived. I never asked my Mom and Dad for details, but suffice it to say they were celebrating the lunar landing at the Parkhaus Hotel in Darmstadt, Germany on July 20, 1969.
I love that I know this. It's somehow magical. Even better that it's tied to something so historic. The moon! With people on it! And so this day has become a second birthday to me. In fact, it might matter to me even more than my birthday, because this is when I technically became a me. And yeah, this post could devolve into a discussion about rights to life and choice, but that isn't my point. (For the record, I do believe that the government—and everyone else— should stay out of making decisions about what goes on inside another person's body.)
What I can't figure out is why my parents were there at the hotel. They lived 40 minutes away. Were they on a little getaway? Were they renovating their apartment? I have no idea and I will never know, because they are both gone, and I never thought to ask them while they were here on earth. How many other stories have disappeared with them?
Did Mom really think Dad was an arrogant jerk when she met him? Or did she kinda like him? Did she really tell him to go make his own coffee at the office? (She was his secretary in Manhattan in the Mad Men era.) Is that what made him fall in love? When was she engaged to that other guy, Walter, and did she really throw his engagement ring out the window at him? Was Dad really out playing tennis when my brother was born? Was I really named after an Italian movie star?
A few years ago I read an article in The New Yorker about a neuroscientist researching ways to ease the pain of traumatic memories... I'm wondering if someone could also research how to strengthen the memories you want to keep and never let go, the ones that hover half-remembered at the edge of your recollection in a cloudy fuzz. Could we enhance them just a bit? And then seal them in some kind of brain-glue so they never fade?
Ask. Ask about your family stories and write them down, because one day you won't remember, and it will be too late to find out what you wanted to know. Even after my parents grew into a family of four living in a middle class suburb of Connecticut, there were epic parties (Did dad really cook for thirty-plus people on a single backyard hibachi?) and the incident where my Dad, martini in hand, jumped into Aunt Jo's pool in his seersucker suit, bow tie, and white buck shoes (no doubt while Glenn Miller played on the hi-fi.) My brother and I sat wide-eyed listening to Mom tell the story after she sent the babysitter home that night. That one I do remember. But what about that famous business trip to Tokyo involving some rental car shenanigans, a hotel plate glass window, and some sort of orchid arranging presentation (or was it bonsai?) gone awry that Mom had to step in to fix...? I can't even imagine how those pieces possibly fit together (or even when they happened) and yet they do exist.
This must be how stories get passed down over time, and not just in families, but entire cultures. We hang onto the fragments of what we know and fill in the gaps with assumptions, grand or humble, that make a story something to remember, shifting its DNA a little bit every time: The fish was THIS big! Tiny exaggerations become epic. Magical realism transforms an everyday moment into something divinely inspired. It was fate. It was an Italian movie star. The planets did align.