Families are full of stories. I feel very fortunate that both the family I was raised in and the family I am raising have been blessed with mostly good stories. Some are funny, some are quirky, some are touching, but most of them are good. That is something to be thankful for.
The thing about family stories though is you never know which ones are going to stick. My experience is that the most enduring family stories are usually ones that were never meant to be remembered at all. They just happened and something about that moment in time became forever lodged in a child's mind to be forever repeated, with hysterical laughter, around the Thanksgiving table long into adulthood.
This is one of the realities of family life that I keep reminding myself as I move forward through this year, this year of preparing to launch my firstborn. Because so few of those intentional moments and memories you try to create as a parent are going to be the ones that stick. And that's not to say that it isn't worth going out of your way to try to build special family moments or celebrations, you just have to be prepared that what your kids might take away from your artfully presented four-course dinner marking the changing of the leaves was when Tim fell out of his chair for no apparent reason, or when the dog (yes, let's blame the dog) let out a major stinker in the middle of saying grace.
Once, when the boys were young, I decided we should have a special Epiphany dinner complete with crowns, served on our best china, with small, symbolic gifts reminiscent of the gifts the Magi brought to Jesus. Isn't that sweet? Aren't I a good mom? Perhaps, but if you asked my boys they would have absolutely no recollection of that incredibly touching memory created by their mother completely on their behalf. None. I should know, I've asked them.
What they do remember is the time when I was holding baby Annie up above my head making her giggle and wiggle with glee when in her joy she blurped up her last meal which then landed in my mouth. They love to tell that story to anyone who will listen and the hilarity never seems to end. I'm certain that will be the story they pull out to regale the other senior citizens while visiting me in the nursing home. They are sweet, sentimental boys...
You really don't get to choose which stories stick.
At 7 years old, Annie is still in the process of building her repertoire of family stories, but already I have noticed a pattern. The stories that seem to embed themselves into her young memory are generally of two genres; either they are really funny, or they are really scary. Without putting labels onto my daughter who still has lots of time to grow and change in all sorts of ways, Annie can be a bit of a worrier and is rather easily frightened. We guard carefully the images that go into Annie's young mind because otherwise we know we will have a lumpy, sprawling visitor in the middle of our bed that night (and the next night, and the next night, and the next night....)
So, given Annie's dramatic leanings and tremendous fear of being alone, it would stand to reason that one of the stories she has begun to repeat (and repeat often) is the time she inadvertently ended up lost and alone for 15 minutes, in the dark of night, while we were on vacation in Hawaii. Not exactly a family story I intended to create.
Okay, so here's the thing... I have never claimed to be a perfect mom. In fact, I'm pretty willing to admit all of the ways I fall short of my own ideals. But if there is one thing I've been pretty darn consistent with over the years it is that I really, really try not to lose my kids. That one is always high on my parenting priority list. But once again, sometimes kids and their annoying tendency to act so childish have a way of thwarting our plans.
Here is the quick version: Annie, the boys and I were standing at the movie rental kiosk in the lobby of our hotel. Having made their selection the boys declared they were heading back to the condo. 30 seconds after they walked away, Annie asked if she could go with them. They had just disappeared from view so I told her, "okay, but if you don't see the boys right when you turn that corner you need to come straight back to me." Given her high level of fear of being alone, I felt pretty safe in assuming she would do just that. She didn't. Leave it to an unpredictable kid (a slightly fearful, anxious one at that) to pick that moment to try and earn her courage badge. Annie did not see the boys but felt confident she could find her way back on her own. Turns out she couldn't. Meanwhile, I arrived back at the condo, heard the boys watching TV in their room, started chatting with Superdad when suddenly my inner red flag went up. I asked quickly, "Where's Annie? Did she come back with the boys?" In about 10 seconds, after some frantic yelling toward the boy's room, we all determined that she wasn't there and everyone proceeded to fly out of the condo. I took the elevator, the boys all took the stairs and amazingly I hit the ground first. I raced back toward the lobby not knowing what else to do, frantically started looking around the outdoor restaurant when a waitress caught my crazed eyes and apparently knew exactly who I was and who I was looking for. She pointed toward the bar and said, "She's right there." And there was my sweet girl, sitting on a bar stool sipping a lemonade. Hugging and weeping commenced. Thankfully, after having made a not-so-good choice (venturing out into the night alone) Annie made a very good choice once she realized she was lost. She went back to the place where she knew there were adults who could help her and we would be most likely to find her. Praise the Lord, seriously.
So, there you go. High drama. An exotic location. Live music in the background. It's a story just tailor-made to become etched on a child's psyche for all of eternity. Super.
But maybe, every once in awhile, we get a chance to change the narrative on what otherwise looked to be an indelible childhood memory.
Annie has been having a somewhat rocky start to her school year. Her perfectionist personality combined with somewhat anxious tendencies can make school a daunting place for her. She is a highly capable student with lots of friends and a teacher that she loves, but that doesn't stop her from imagining all the ways her day could suddenly, irrevocably go wrong. And those fears can spill into her home life where her once peaceful existence is now fraught with angst.
She was having one of those angst-driven moments when I took the occasion to try and remind her of all the blessings in her life. As we counted them together I offered, "And look at all the people who love you! Mommy loves you. Daddy loves you. Oma loves you. Your brothers love you."
She shot back, "My brothers don't love me!"
Of course I disagreed and we went round and round with the usual "but they tease me" and my explanations of "that has nothing to do with the fact that they love you, that's what brothers do"... all to no avail.
Then, I had a flash of inspiration. It was a risky flash of inspiration, but it was inspiration nonetheless. I weighed the potential downfall of bringing up her most painful memory to date and decided to boldly take the chance at putting a new spin on an old story.
I said to her, "Do you remember when you got lost in Hawaii?"
Her eyes widened in fear, shocked that I would initiate a conversation about that horrible night when usually I was trying to get her to forget it. She nodded mutely.
I went on, "Well, remember when I found you? Do you remember who came running up right behind me?"
She thought about that for a minute and answered slowly, "Ummm...Daddy?"
"Yep, and who else?"
Again, she paused and then said, "The boys?"
I nodded and told her quietly, "That's right. And you know I just realized that you don't really know that part of the story. What you don't know is that when we all figured out that you were missing your brothers dropped everything they were doing and ran out of that condo as fast as they could. They didn't even put on their shoes. They told me later that when they took the stairs it hurt their feet because they were jumping down them four steps at a time trying to get to the bottom as fast as they could. But they didn't care. All they cared about was finding you."
Unable to control herself, Annie's face transformed from one of fear to one of undeniable joy and contentment. The pleasure of this new memory was enough to quiet all of the anxiety and drama she allowed to build in her heart and give her peace.
A few days later, I overheard Annie talking with some of her friends while working on an art activity at Sunday School. I don't know how the conversation started but I heard Annie say, "You know what? One time when we were in Hawaii, I got lost and my brothers ran SO fast to find me, they didn't even put on their shoes!" Her friends were visibly impressed with her tale of heroism.
And I smiled, hoping that maybe this family story really does have a new ending now. That forevermore, when Annie reflects back on that night when she felt momentarily scared and alone, she will no longer remember it as a story of fear...but instead, a story of love. It was the night when her brothers raced out into the dark, with pounding hearts and bare feet, intent on only one thing- finding their little sister.
Hopefully, she will never again lose sight of the truth. That no matter how many silly ways they might tease her, or how often they seem disinterested in her little life and her seven year old ways... they will always come to her rescue.
And that's a true story.