Before I had kids, the most exciting thing I could say about my own childhood was that it was over.
Don’t get me wrong.
It wasn’t a bad childhood, just boring. At least, that’s how it seemed while I was living it. It was inevitable that at some point Ben and Sam would begin asking questions about my past, and as a result, I find they have a vastly different impression of my childhood than I did. They think I lived a feral, frontier upbringing, filled with brawling, mad dogs, and close scrapes with the law.
Part of it, of course, is that only certain material is story worthy. There is no story material in the years of Thursday evenings I spent watching Hill Street Blues while my classmates were out laying the groundwork for future Facebook affairs. There is story material in the time I chased my sister across the yard with a pitchfork.
Stories in which I play the fool or am poorly behaved are perennial favorites. Kids (or maybe it’s just my kids) can’t get enough of stories that paint their parents as bumbling idiots.
Here’s a helpful tip: Don’t try to append a moral to your stories. Summing up a cracking good story with a moral is like treating your kids to ice cream with a Brussels sprout chaser.
For example, not long ago I was cleaning out the attic. Ben was rummaging around and turned to me, wide-eyed.
“What is this?
It was my old Crossman 760 pump-action BB rifle.
“Dad’s got a gun!” shouted Sam, vibrating with delight.
We are not a second-amendment family, so for two firearms-deprived boys, even a grimy old BB gun is dusted with adventure and intrigue.
“There’s a story about that gun,” I said, and confessed to the time I was in seventh grade and spent a weekend with my best friend meticulously shooting windows out of a vacant house.
This was like ambrosia to my boys. Their father was a juvenile delinquent! A buddy story with guns! By the time I got to the spanking my father unleashed when he found out, they were slapping high fives.
Best! Story! Ever!
Then I ruined everything. “Let me tell you why I’ve kept this gun all these years. Because it’s a reminder of how thoughtless actions can have severe consequences.” Ben’s eyes glazed over. Sam’s shoulders sagged. I had done the unthinkable. I had taken an awesome story and reduced it to a banal lecture.
And then there are stories that take on lives of their own.
Mike is the oldest of my siblings. Growing up, his management style borrowed heavily from the playbook of a banana republic dictator. One afternoon we were home alone, doing what we did best: arguing. Things escalated. I lost my temper, and called Mike a filthy name. (It was not, technically, a name, but a strung-together fusillade of all the bad words I knew at age eleven.) He locked me in my room, presumably while he searched for his thumbscrews and hot irons. Fearing for my life, I leaped from the window, then ran to a neighbor’s house to call my father and report on what was clearly a felonious case of sibling abuse.
As a story, it has it all: cussing, fighting, imprisonment, escape.
This story made the rounds at a recent Moore family gathering. I told my tale of oppression, and then Mike added his version, emphasizing the impossibly bratty little brother. Then my father layered on his viewpoint of trying to simultaneously run a small business while dealing with children who were cussing, fighting, imprisoning one another, and running amok through the neighborhood.
And therein, Gentle Reader, lies the point.
Petty Despot Mike is now Beloved Uncle Mike. My father the harried businessman is now the retired grandfather gratified that, despite unfavorable early returns, his brood turned out all right. Family stories are yarns in all senses of the word. They bind our generations together, and help our children realize we were once what they now are.
Children tend to think their parents sprang forth, fully formed and armed with all knowledge. There’s a rich value for a child to learn that his father was once just a potty-mouthed fifth-grader. Ben and Sam delight to the image of me as the rube who broke riotous wind in church, or as the milksop who was routinely bullied by a rooster, or as the hapless college student who was arrested (in a case of mistaken identity, I hasten to add) for armed robbery while eating a fast-food biscuit.
As Ben and Sam grow into their teen years, I’ll have decisions to make about other stories with higher stakes, stories that are about wrestling with issues around alcohol and sexual relationships. They won’t always be funny, but I hope they serve the same purpose they always have: conveying to Ben and Sam that I have been as befuddled by life as they often feel. I have failed (sometimes spectacularly) and I have often been a fool, but despite it all I still stumbled in the direction of wisdom and competence.
But I don’t need to suck the life out of these stories by explaining to them that this is the messy way by which we grow up. They are bright and possess enough of a sense of their own capacity that they take it all in and justifiably conclude: If even a hayseed like Dad can do it, I can too.