Another Lesson from Peary Street

Our Stories are more dynamic than our lives because we live once, but stories are retold endlessly.

On the surface, my parent's seven children should recall similar versions of life on Peary Street, but as we boxed and cleared out a lifetime's keepsakes, our memories required frequent questioning as it seemed that we did not all grow up in the same house or family. In fact, my father's passing created absolute turmoil as seven adults tried to ease our mother's time alone based on the wishes of our parents as we remembered them from the stories told on Peary Street. We seven consistently offered each other versions of history and lessons that our parents taught us that sounded like we could not have ever shared the same dinner table.

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The house on Peary Street

Each of us has to reach our own acceptance of the terminal nature of aging, even if our parents have accepted that their lives are ending. We certainly demonstrated the difficulty of that task as we responded to the declining health and vitality of our parents, a task made infinitely more difficult by our parents refusal to share information with us. We learned while my father was near death that he had been treated for prostate cancer years earlier. In the absence of knowledge, we created our own stories of our parent's last years. One sister refused to accept that dementia reduced her mother's ability to function independently. One brother resisted getting a diagnosis because putting a name on the memory loss would not change the care or prognosis. Some tried to reinstate a driver's license suspended due to the obvious loss of cognitive ability.

The story of symmentropy springs from the foundation of Peary Street where nine people lived pretending that their stories contained totally unremarkable events. When I was in grade school, my father was among the church leaders who confronted the minister over his sexual interest in the young boys in the choir. The minister hanged himself in his cell while he was waiting for trial on various charges relating to his prurient interests in my classmates. The interesting part of this story is that it was not discussed! I never heard a word about it from my father or even a conversation over dinner about the changes at the church or why they occurred. My brother, sister and I had our conversations about the immediate dislike that we had all taken to the man when we first met him, but we did not have a reason for our feelings until we got the rest of the story. The story remains a part of my rejection of organized religion, but as a young man, storytelling gave us peace in how it explained the world that we knew and our parents seemed to ignore.

Both of my parents celebrated their tenth birthdays during the great depression and their twentieth in the build up to WWII. Hard times were the standard for most Americans during that decade and to hear the story from my parents, it was normal to keep hardships private. You just did not discuss your business with the neighbors. This reluctance to air your problems drove seven young people to share their stories in groups of two or three. We had no real family stories, but we had lots of back channels to share what was going on. The pattern we established as preschoolers helped the older ones leave Peary Street at the first opportunity but without creating a story that would suggest anything other than growing and moving on.

Another example was my father's movie camera. He had a 16mm camera that stayed in a closet except for birthdays, Christmas and the annual vacation week at the beach. As the years went on, he edited, well more he spliced together each new spool onto 7 inch reels. Every so often the projector and the screen came out of the closet so we could review an increasing number of Christmas trees with an increasing number of stockings hanging from the mantle on Peary Street. Our family storytelling reduced to the few times a year that the movie camera came out of its box so that we could review the years in chronological order. The amazing part of this story is that when we were packing up the house, that camera was still in its original box and still working. A quick computer search gave a few hints that you might still find film for it if you work hard and carry a lot of cash.

Sixty years after we moved into Peary Street, many of these stories appear in the papers and personal effects that our parents kept secret, even from my inquisitive sister who had no qualms about researching any drawer or any box in any closet. The absence of coherent family lore has left us bereft of congeniality and family cohesion. There is a real question as to whether or not there will be any time in the future that as many as four of the seven us can be found in the same room again. Our stories were as separate as our lives will be in the future. Nothing in storytelling is more important than the development of group knowledge through the understanding of twists and turns of a lifetime.

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