I began engaging my parents in storywork by asking about the menu notebook created by my dad. That cloth-bound, 70’s style, denim-blue, three-ring binder filled with a month’s worth of menus was a distinct childhood memory.
I brought it up one day in their kitchen, spurred on by my own challenges with and resistance to menu-planning.
Do you remember the blue menu notebook?
They did. We reminisced a bit before I pressed in further.
What if we each wrote the menu-notebook story from our own perspective and then met to read our stories?
It was a risk, yet the menu notebook was fairly benign. For me it held childhood confusion over who was right or wrong, whether the notebook was good or bad, and why two people I loved and who seemed to be working hard in their individual ways did not seem to be on the same team.
They agreed, and we set a time to meet and share. I went home to write. Was this a good idea? The only way to find out was to try.
When our planned time rolled around the following week, we sat in a circle, each of us with our version of the story. Mom’s was written on a folded piece of paper, much like the hand-written letters I remember her composing when I was a child. She shared first at my request, since menu-planning was the presenting issue.
Dad was next, being the one with the solution. He opened his laptop like a dutiful student with a completed assignment and pulled up his story. He read through moments of laughter over shared and differing perspectives. So far, things were going well.
Finally, I pulled out my spiral-bound story notebook and read all the way to the final risky line. I had debated leaving it in or taking it out right down to the last minute. I wanted to be honest, yet kind.
Deciding that it would be honoring to the young girl inside to allow her honest question about the dynamic between her parents to be heard, I left it, reading through laughter and tears all the way to the end. Only then did I look up, not knowing what to expect.
How would my words be received?
“That last sentence. Read it again.”
“That explains the dynamic beautifully. That is how it felt between us. You have such good words.”
My parents went on discussing their relational reality, as I shared how it felt to me as a child in the middle. I felt heard, acknowledged, and seen. Somewhere inside a small girl was tended to. Words that she could not speak then were heard and received now.
Space opened up in all of our hearts. Laughter, kindness, and grief mingled together, covering us like a warm blanket. There was room to begin to explore other stories, for me and also for them. Not the plastic stories we often tell, but the real ones. I took another risk, inviting them to their young selves.
Remember Heidi the dog? I have a story about her. Do you want to share a childhood pet story of your own next time?
They agreed, and it was the beginning of our season of stories. When I tell people I am doing story work with my parents, responses vary from, Wow! I could never do that! to You’re so brave! to I wish I could talk to my parents. My response is, If you only knew what it took to get here, you would see that it did not happen overnight, and it is not for everyone.
Each of us has our own journey and call. This is mine.
Ten years ago I began looking at my own story. I was angry and hurting. At the funeral of a dear elderly woman, I felt the nudge to know and be known by my parents while there was still time.
I took a difficult story about my teenage self to them, not knowing how it would be received. Their tears, grief, and open arms revealed safe terrain. I knew there was freedom to walk further, should I choose.
From there the steps have been incremental. Some seasons have felt safer than others. The year that I dug into intense story work, they were supportive and curious but did not demand or pry. I was not ready to share more.
Now I am.
I want to name the courage of my parents to hear my words and respond from a posture of curiosity rather than defense. I want to honor their willingness to engage my memories without correcting or dismissing them. I want to thank them for creating space for love to grow by stepping with me into a season of stories.
Julie McClay lives in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley with her high school sweetheart and four of their eight children. She is a lover of stories and words. Having completed Training Certificates 1 and 2 through the Allender Center, she continues learning to face the past honestly while living in the moment and looking towards the future. She finds story work healing and hopeful and seeks to offer this invitation of healing and hope to others. She digs through her thoughts and feelings here.