John McLaughlin had hoped to gather his father’s stories before it was “too late.” His father, Bob, was a character and a “great storyteller.” After hearing me talk at the Augusta Rotary club this past spring, John and I planned a phone call to discuss doing an audio memoir for his father. In the meantime, as he shuttled his dad around to various medical appointments, John asked questions and listened to stories about the old days. He saw it as a precursor to the work I would do with his father.
“When I got home from his appointments I would rush to my journal and enter his stories. I could tell he was delighted to share his past with me.”
Bob told his son stories about his teenage “James Dean” days of playing hooky, going to dances at the grange halls, and trying to impress an exotic girl he met from Peru (turns out she was from Peru, Maine). He talked about his Navy days during the Korean War, and even about the time he befriended a goat.
There were many memories passed along during those car rides - many John had never heard before. John and Bob were setting the stage for me to record these stories and more, so family and friends could hear Bob’s laugh, the cadence of his voice, his own stories in his own words. But that would never come to pass.
John is a busy person. Like many in the “sandwich generation,” he is juggling the needs of aging parents and children, not to mention work too. On the day of our phone meeting, John was pulled away by an emergency staff meeting, and we rescheduled our call.
Two days after our canceled call, his father’s health took a dark turn for the worst. Bob lost the ability to speak. Two weeks later Bob McLaughlin passed away peacefully surrounded by family and loved ones.
John emailed to tell me:
“The experience and his stories have been a genuine source of comfort to me and my family in this difficult time. I feel I have you to thank for having this gift from him. Had you not inquired into speaking to the Augusta Rotary club I would not have thought to capture his memories and stories directly from him. Please know I'm forever grateful for the "kismet" that brought you to the Augusta club meeting.”
John and his father reminded me that our stories can be a powerful source of healing and comfort in the face of grief. The stories of John’s father were not lost. John wrote many of them down. They were a father’s last gift to his son.
As a daughter who lost a father too young, I can only wish for my dad’s stories. I am grateful to the friends and family who shared their memories and stories of my dad with me.
Life is full of unknowns. We don’t know how long we have left to live or when the ability to recall memories will fail. Sometimes, if we are lucky and proactive, we can gather the stories of an aging parent or grandparent before it is “too late.” Sometimes, our own memories of that person will be the stories we have, the stories we find strength, wisdom, and comfort in.
Meghan Vigeant is an oral historian who helps ordinary people turn their extraordinary life stories into books and audio memoirs. For more information…
I asked John if he would share one of his father’s stories with my readers. He was honored. Here is a story he sent me about Bob’s teenage dancehall days” and the exotic young lady from “Peru.”
My father got bored with high school at age 16, started playing hooky and dropped out because in his words he thought he was "too cool for school.” Then, beginning in 1950 he became a kind of early James Dean prototype, a young man about town where he would drive a red 1950 Chevy to weekly dances at all the area grange halls in a five or six town radius. He told of the house swing bands, lots of teens whirling and twirling on sawdust covered floors, the young ladies fanning themselves and giggling in clusters between dances while the guys would all be trying to look worldly and tough.
He told me of this one dance he went to in Mt. Vernon, Maine where there was this pretty and exotic-looking girl (to his eyes) that he just had to dance with... (read more)