One memory leads to another. And another. And a photo unearthed from those days is not only the photo of that event but is also the thing that drags in another dozen memories, simply by whatever objects or people were inadvertently captured in the background.
There is the photo of me at my fifth birthday, smiling through child’s eyes four decades younger than the eyes I have now. But there is also the cake, barely in view, the cake I remember watching my mom make with such care. I remember feeling amazed that she could create such a thing. And in the background of the photo there is a houseplant: a monument to my mom’s never-ending love of ferns. And sitting beside me, looking rather bored, is some kid I don’t remember, a neighbor conscripted to help us celebrate my fifth birthday, since we were living so far from home without cousins or uncles to join us. I thought his shirt was incredible, with the stripes around the sleeves, the navy blue band around the collar.
“Wasn’t his name Hayward, or something like that?” Mom texts me. “LOL.”
“I don’t know,” I write back. “I see him, but I don’t even remember a person like him existing.”
There is the candle on the table, the table itself, the metal folding chair. There is the dark wood paneling on the walls.
And sometime around then, I remember the sound of my mother screaming. I ran through the trailer to the bathroom on the other side of the kitchen, wondering what fresh horror could bring such a sound from my mother’s lungs? When I arrived, I found her backing away from the bath tub, in which slithered some kind of reptile–a snake or a lizard, I can’t remember which, had found its way in and couldn’t get out.
I don’t remember what we did. I’m sure neither one of us touched it.
And this brings to mind the other times in my life when I heard my mother scream: when the car in front of us at an intersection pulled out in front of a semi and flew through the air; when a frying pan on the stove erupted into fire; when my younger sister Angie stopped breathing; when my mom was giving birth to my youngest sister back in the bedroom.
One memory leads to another.
Nearly twenty years after the lizard in the tub incident, soon after Maile and I were married and moved to Florida, I received a call at work from Mai.
“You have to come home. Now.” Her voice trembled.
“Why?” I asked.
“There is a lizard on the sliding door, and it’s inside the house.”
I was four years old in 1981, and I loved to drive my parents’ car.
That probably needs a little clarification.
Let’s start with this: My dad, 24 years old, fresh out of Bible school, and operating with the fervor of an early apostle on the road out of Jerusalem, had recently become the pastor at a small church in Laredo. If you don’t know the place, Laredo is in Texas, squarely on the Mexican border. Neither my mom or dad spoke Spanish. I remember mostly dust, and lizards, and the two mobile homes that we lived in: the first felt tiny and blue and hot, and the second was tan, the color of the landscape, a double-wide…in other words, a mansion compared to the first.
My dad had grown up Beachy Amish, which is one step removed from Amish, and he was 16 when he and all seven of his brothers and sisters found Jesus in a country church, a place called Victory Chapel, and they pretty quickly went from rebellious, stoic, nearly-Amish teenagers to speaking-in-tongues charismatic-Pentecostals, laughing their way into Holy Spirit fits and sprinting up and down the aisles of that new, exciting church. Nothing like the old. My dad’s early life as an almost Amish boy, and his teenage conversion, would leave him skeptical of anything rote for the rest of his life.
That kind of salvation is bound to give you whiplash. My dad decided to become a pastor, went to Missouri for two years of Bible college, and then pretty soon after that took his first pastoring position in the town of Laredo, Texas on the northern bank of the Rio Grande.
Laredo was nothing like Pennsylvania, where my parents had grown up and spent their entire childhood. Laredo was hot, for one. Ungodly hot. And dusty. And the grass there wasn’t soft like it was up north—it was more like tiny shards of cactus beaten into submission by the roasting sun.
While my parents would later go on to have more children, at the time it was me and my sister. She was two and a half years younger than me, with white-blonde hair and green eyes. The Spanish speakers in our church would reach out and touch her hair.
I have a dozen other memories from those Texas years, when we lived in Laredo and, later, Mesquite, but those memories are all somehow sharp, like scenes from a movie. There was the incident of the empty swimming pool. Lizards in the tub. The fire ant escapade. The road runner I saw from Dad’s motorcycle. Impetigo. My sister pooping in the baby pool. The uncooked pasta Christmas tree I made in kindergarten. Football with Dad in the trailer.
But one memory that stands above the rest is the fact that Dad would let me drive, and on a fairly regular basis (or at least that’s how I remember it).
We’d be on the way home from church at night. I was four years old, and this was long before the days of car seats. He’d move me over onto his lap so that I could steer the car. I don’t remember what kind of automobile it was, but I imagine it having one of those huge, bench seats all along the front. I remember a particular stretch of highway, sitting on Dad’s lap, the streetlights swimming by. It all felt new and wide, like the world was opening up.
Dad held his hands up. “Look,” he said. “You’re driving now.”
My parents were both so young at the time, in their early twenties, half the age I am now. They had left everything they had known to lead this tiny little church in a place where most people spoke a different language. They had two young children. I had that energy too, when I was in my twenties, and Maile and I moved to England to help start a business, but now the thought of such an adventure just makes me want to find a comfortable chair and take a nap.
We had an 8-track player in the car that I drove, and I mostly remember Dottie Rambo’s album Down by the Creek Bank.
On nights I didn’t drive, I fell asleep in the back seat, and one parent or another would carry me inside.
Even though my dad was a pastor back then, and his decision to move the family to Laredo was based on a strong belief in God, I don’t remember thinking very much about God when I was four. Which seems peculiar to me now, in mid-life, when much of my mental activity revolves around God, wondering about God’s existence, thinking about how nice it must be in heaven and then two seconds later wondering how it could even be true, praying and then wondering if I’m just talking to myself, thinking about all the stories I learned when I was a child. All that hope. But when I was little, back then, back in the beginning, I don’t remember thinking about God. It was mostly just me, my parents, my sister. That would change though.
Driving that car. I laugh to myself, thinking about that. Dad told me the other day it was a Toyota station wagon.
* * * * *
Not too many nights ago I carried our youngest daughter Poppy up to bed after getting home late. There is a particular weight to a sleeping child, the way they cling to you even in their slumber, the way they nestle their forehead deep into your neck, as if they’re trying to meld into your body.
I laid her down in her bed and she rolled over. I covered her with a blanket. Amazing that I know how to do this, how to carry a sleeping child, how to tuck them in, except it’s not so amazing when I remember that it was done for me, all those long years ago, when we lived in the far-off land of Laredo and I was getting my first experience behind the wheel.
I asked my mom if she had any pictures from those days in Laredo. This is me, almost five.
I remember climbing out of the cab in front of the apartment building in Istanbul, Turkey. Walking up to the quiet building. Pressing the buzzer. A crackling voice came through the small intercom.
“This is Shawn,” I said in a hesitant voice. I had never been there before.
“Come on up.”
A buzzing noise, the click of a lock, and I was inside. The lobby was empty. The elevator didn’t have an interior door, so I could see each successive floor as it rose up, up, methodically up to the sixth floor. Outside the apartment door, shoes were lined up. I took mine off, knocked, and waited.
For the next three weeks, I traveled by taxi to the apartment, a one-hour drive across that hundred-mile-wide city, through the twisting streets, sometimes covered by the Muslim call to prayer. I was writing the story of a man who was dying of cancer, and nearly every day, as we sat in his study and quietly talked through his life, he would recite the verse, “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed…”
* * * * *
A few years before that, I pulled up outside a nondescript Maryland home, close to an elementary school. Small children ran down the long sidewalk, hefting backpacks nearly as big as themselves. I sat in the car for a moment, nervous about the meeting.
I took a deep breath, climbed out of my car, and walked to the front door. The man who answered was chiseled, broad-shouldered, a specimen. He welcomed me in and we sat in the sunlight streaming through the window. He had once served as part of the long-secret Seal Team 6. He was telling me about a SEAL whose memoir I was writing, a man who had been at the invasion of Panama, a man who had been shot in the head and left in the dead pile.
He told me stories that, if we ever wanted to publish them, I would need permission from various government agencies in order to put them in print. He told me about entertaining higher-ups at an outdoor feast in the Middle Eastern wilderness while watching mortars explode on the far-off mountainside.
* * * * *
One final story: I remember walking up to a suburban house surrounded by beautiful flowers. Inside, I sat with the parents of a girl who had committed suicide years before, a girl who had, early one morning, after years of torment and incorrect diagnoses and medication that simply couldn’t reach deep down to the heart of the matter, walked out on the dock near their house and slipped into the water wearing a backpack full of rocks.
I left their house with two reusable grocery bags full of their daughter’s journals. I remember reading through every single one of them multiple times, trying to discover when everything went so wrong. The journals were in my house for months. I stared at them. Their presence filled me with sadness.
But they were also beautiful, filled with her words, her art. She was still there, somehow, in those journals, and I spent months trying to find her in the pages.
* * * * *
Every time someone sits across from me and tells me their story, it is a gift…to me, and to them. Whenever we take time to write out the things that have happened to us, we approach a kind of wholeness that, for most people, remains out of arm’s reach. But telling our stories puts us in better touch with who we are.
And for nearly 12 years now I have made a living by listening and then writing the stories of others. In the last year or so, Maile and I began to explore what it might look like if, instead of writing FOR others, I came alongside and coached people through the process of writing their own stories down. What would it look like for me to help them tell the truth about their experience, their life, what they’ve been through?
We’re doing it, and we’re calling it The Six Month Memoir. If you’d like to travel this road with us, if you’d like to learn about telling your own story and put in the required work, at the end of six months you will have a completed memoir.
I write at my grandfather’s desk, the one with the top that folds down revealing seven small compartments and eight tiny drawers. The drawers smell like cedar and the inside of a barn. It has a million scratches, a million stories, and I’ve checked it many times for a secret compartment, something left behind, something valuable.
This is the grandfather who sometimes went missing. I imagine his children would get in the car and search for him in the fields, the headlights lurching, although if it happened when they were still Amish, the headlights would be replaced by flashlights and scampering feet. I wonder what the child who found him would say, or ask. Maybe they simply stood there, shining the light, and maybe he slowly rose from where he had been sitting or lying in the field and followed the beams home.
What do you say to a father found in a field?
* * * * *
I was wondering on this hot July afternoon what my grandfather might have done at this desk. Pay the bills, I suppose. Perhaps he wrote letters to his children once they moved away to Missouri and Texas and Louisiana, although he doesn’t strike me as the letter-writing type. Maybe he sat and stared at the wood grain, as I sometimes do, and wonder about the future.
He became quite the entrepreneur—maybe he dreamed up some of his ideas sitting at this desk. Maybe he sketched out drawings or business plans or maybe numbers were the furthest thing from his mind. Maybe he only had dreams.
I can relate with that.
As I sat here at this desk today, thunderstorms passing to the north so that the rain didn’t reach us, I wondered what it would be like if he could sit right her beside me. I could show him the framed cover image given to me by my editor, the one I keep on top of my desk. Or the boxed set of famous poets; I wonder if he would like William Wordsworth or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Or maybe some Emily Dickinson:
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth
I would turn around and show him my books on the bookshelf, the words I have written. I imagine him frowning with a kind of serious satisfaction.
I would tell him it is okay that he sometimes went missing, that all of us want to disappear from time to time.
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These hot summer days remind me of when I was young, Leo’s age in fact, riding bike through the humid air on the farm where we lived. My friend and I swept down the pockmarked driveway, past the fruit trees and the cows, their tails swishing side to side, across the narrow back road and into the church parking lot. Around and around we rode our bikes, then through the graveyard and back to the church again, paying no attention to the somber people standing beside the graves.
Ditching our bikes, we clambered down the forest bank to the Pequea Creek, fishing or telling stories or searching for snappers. The water ran and ran and never looked back.
I wonder where that water is now, that very water we watched bubbling over rocks and spinning in tiny vortices around our ankles. Is it in the Atlantic Ocean? Or locked in ice in some far northern place? Or in a cloud over Sri Lanka?
Or has that water made its way back again to me, to the Millstream where I live now, where my son Leo wades and the minnows dash away and the tadpoles gather in black specks? Do I drink it from my tap, those same molecules that rushed by me almost 40 years ago?
How much of life returns to us, and we never even recognize it?
The day after always feels quiet, even if there are podcast interviews or books to sign or, as there is today, a book release party this coming weekend to plan for. The day after feels still and perhaps a little bit empty.
Yesterday, the day of, was full of congratulations and goodwill and tags and shares. The kids hugged me and wished me well. I received kind messages from so many of you. Maile and I talked for a while on Instagram Live about what it means to release a book.
In the afternoon, I took Leo mini-golfing, mostly as a belated birthday gift to him, but to me it also felt like a good way to celebrate the release of a book. We walked around in the heat and humidity, cheering each other on, laughing. He proclaimed, “Jelly!” after every putt I made. I asked him why.
“The older kids say it instead of jealous,” he said shrugging, and we both burst out laughing. It felt good to slowly walk the course with him, to eat a little ice cream in the tiny shop afterwards. His long, sweaty hair clung to his temples.
I dropped him off at the house and drove 30 minutes to Aaron’s Books in Lititz to sign some preorders they were preparing to mail out. Todd was, as usual, kind and encouraging. He set up a table for me, and I made my way through the stack, signing each one, recognizing most of the names of the people who had preordered. That’s the fun part—seeing your names, knowing you’ll read this story, remembering how often you all have supported me and my writing.
In the evening, Maile and I took the kids out to Wasabi to eat, our favorite local suchi place. One final celebration on release day. It isn’t often anymore that all eight of us are together. We told stories and Cade told us about his new factory job and we talked about books and movies and there were a few miniature spats but mostly everyone was on good form. We bought some ice cream at the grocery store on the way home for root beer floats.
Then, the day after.
I woke up and stared at the ceiling. Maile was already awake, getting ready to take one of our kids to have their wisdom teeth pulled. I wandered downstairs. The house was still. Inside, I felt still. The waiting is finished. The book has released.
* * * * *
On the weekend of July 4th, the Smucker side of my family got together, as we have become accustomed to doing. We set up camp at my uncle’s property, and we sit around, watch the kids play in the stream or fish or go down the water slide, and we talk about life. We catch up.
There’s well over 100 of us now, four generations since Grandma and Grandpa have passed. Around 80 of us showed up this year. And on Saturday night we did something a little different.
We took some time to remember the seven who have died. Grandpa. Grandma. Aunt Shirley. Angela. Justin. Maddox. Dean.
I thought a lot about Dean this year. He died right around New Years. The last time I saw him was two years ago, at the 2019 reunion, and we had a chance to catch up a bit. He was a gentle soul, a kind man, and 55 years old when he died, leaving behind his wonderful wife and four children.
I think a lot about Dean these days, when it comes to my life, how I’m spending my days.
My Uncle Aaron, Dean’s father-in-law, told me how Dean had drawn up the plans for his house renovations, and also for Aaron’s son’s kitchen, and now they are building things to Dean’s specifications. Even after he’s gone. In this way, Dean’s creativity and collaboration continue on, after him. What a legacy.
Maile and I began to wonder, are we so focused on bettering ourselves here, now, that our view has become inward-facing?
Or are we creating things that will outlive us? And I’m not necessarily talking about only books. I’m also talking about collaborations and encouragement and working together with others to change the world, even in small ways.
Can we go on living in the days and weeks and months and years after our death?
* * * * *
This is the morning. The day after. The book has been released. Winnie lays on the floor of my office looking up at me. Normal life has returned.