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“Tell me again,” I sigh as I flop down on the couch. “When was it that you first met?”
In an ideal, non-pandemic world, I would be sitting on my parents’ couch in their living room during one of the weeklong visits when my husband and I and six children invade their house and make ourselves at home.
But tonight the couch is mine. And theirs. I’m settling down in Oakville, Ont., while they are two giant provinces away in Shaunavon, Sask. Due to pandemic restrictions, it has been nearly two years since I have sat on their couch or they on mine, and we’re still guessing when the next time might be.
“It was 1967,” my mom offers, and she tells me of a time when she and Dad were twentysomethings working across the street from each other in a small prairie city.
During our home visits, our nighttime conversations have always been my favourite. After tucking my kids into bed, I can usually find Mom in the living room, reading a book by the golden glow of the table lamps. I will cozy up next to her on the couch (usually squirming in too close), lean my head on her shoulder and ask about her current read or something happening in town. The conversation starts in spurts, as she moves away from her book and into the narrative of her day. Dad will wander in from his office where he had been watching the nightly news, to stand for a while with his hands in his pockets, tossing tidbits here and there until he finally commits and sits down in the rocking chair. And then – then it really gets going. All I need to do is ask one question and the journey of the story begins, a slow but steady moving tale, like a farm truck plodding down a gravel road on a crop tour. Mom and Dad move from one story to the next, making stops and detours with commentary about the weather and crop conditions and side notes on who’s related to who. And before we say good night, a couple of chapters of their memoir have billowed up between us, like dust following a truck on a country dirt road.
About a year after I last saw my parents, I woke in the middle of the night in a panic, my heart heavy with worry and fear. “I’m losing time,” I whispered out loud, my stomach and fists clenching. “I’m missing the stories.”
Outside of our visits home, our family wouldn’t be described as talkers – the phone just doesn’t seem as conducive to casual living-room storytelling. And we’re certainly not sharers. We’re not big on I-love-yous or revealing any feelings we have whatsoever. Because Dad says “yup” when I tell him I love him, we’ve all learned to read between the lines. But if we’re not having our conversations, then what lines do I even have to read between?
I may not be able to curl up next to Mom at the end of the day, but I still need to start the conversation somehow. So “Question of the Week” began. During our next phone call, I explained the pretty straightforward rules: Each Sunday I ask a question, and the next Sunday they give me their answers, and we don’t hang up until I’ve given them their next week’s assignment. I spoke with enthusiasm; they replied half-heartedly, not really knowing what they were getting into.
It started out poorly. The questions were too personal for my reserved farmer dad.
“Tell me about the most romantic thing Mom has ever done for you!”
“What kind of question is this?” he said. “Why can’t I just tell you what my favourite vegetable is?” (Potatoes.)
“I want to know how you proposed,” I asked.
“How about I just tell you about my favourite variety of wheat.” (Landmark – “It’s a good yielder.”)
Once I changed my questions, I got him talking. Several months later, we’ve gone on for hours about childhood buddies, favourite travel destinations, influential people in their lives, the most trouble they ever got into as kids, their first big purchase as an adult, and the most valuable thing they own (Mom said it was her kids; Dad said he doesn’t own us).
My mom is handling this like a homework assignment. “What was her maiden name?” I asked when we were talking about relatives at long-ago Christmas dinners.
“Do you want me to look that up?” Mom replied with purpose. She has referenced journals and scrapbooks to provide me with exact dates and names. She has sent me the newspaper columns she used to write as the district home economist in North Battleford after she had graduated from university.
“You know, I used to just putter around when I was cleaning the house, but now you’ve got me thinking about some things,” she told me one day. And me, too. I may not be sitting down beside her but she’s in my mind and I’m in hers, thinking about questions and answers as we all wait for the next time we can look at each other face to face.
I’m hearing the stories about family and dates and Dad’s favourite crops and the weather in 1978, but I’m also learning about them – they are not, and never were, just my parents but they are people with pasts and stories and friends and inspirations. “It was a lot of partying,” Mom said when talking about her friends out of university, in a statement that I find out of character but sits just right with her life at the time.
“What are you even doing this for?” my dad asked suspiciously, as though I were planning on revealing the intimate details about what kinds of pies he likes in a tell-all book.
What could I say? Because I’m in a panic? Because who knows when COVID will ever let me get home again? Because you’re getting older and I’m terrified of losing you and your stories and your chuckle? That I need to know as much about you as I possibly can so one day these stories will breathe your life through me?
“Well,” I said, fiercely holding on to my tears and trying to climb over the lump in my throat, “I just miss you.” “Well, that’s a good enough reason as any I suppose,” he returned. Yup. It is. And I love you, too.
Gillian Kantor lives in Oakville, Ont.
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