Stories have always been a big part of my life.
My earliest memories are of my elders telling stories about their parents and grandparents. My two favorite storytellers were my Uncle Kay and father.
Collectively, they told me and my siblings countless stories that painted a picture of my ancestors and their lived experiences. Their real-world hopes, dreams, joys, failures and sorrows. These stories made me appreciate, ponder and laugh.
I loved to listen to my father recount stories that made him smile and chuckle. It never failed; when my father laughed, I would laugh. I loved hearing about my great grandparents’ quick wits and their ability to see the glass of life half-full. Nevertheless, my father would balance that with stories of hardships my ancestors faced and how they dealt with those challenges.
Perhaps it was a bull on the family farm that tried to gore my great-grandfather and if it had not been for an old, faithful dog (Kate), the bull might have succeeded. Or the struggle to make ends meet during the Great Depression and how my grandmother would work 12-hour days in a sweltering, hot and humid dry cleaner business side-by-side with my grandfather to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table.
Sometimes, I would ask my dad to tell me a story from his youth, but more often than not, stories materialized at the most impromptu times.
About 20 years ago, while living in the Netherlands, my parents came over for a visit. I decided to take them for a quick trip to visit one of my favorite quaint little German towns called Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a few hours’ drive across the Dutch boarder.
Rothenburg is a popular, well-preserved medieval town, part of what they call the “Romantic Road” through southern Germany. It is a picturesque German village that was spared from the carnage of destruction during the world wars. It is an absolute joy to visit and explore. Hence, I thought it the perfect destination to take my parents for a quick overnight European excursion.
So I took a few days off and prepared to be the tour guide for my mother and father. It is about a five-hour drive from our house in Holland to Rothenberg. After doing the normal packing and preparation, the car was loaded and we were ready to head out. As I was getting in my large Volvo sedan early that first morning, my father said, “Art, I think I will ride in the back seat with your mother.” There was a warmth and gentleness with his statement that was unforgettable. “Absolutely, Dad. Not a problem at all,” I replied.
With me in the front and my parents in the back, it sincerely looked and felt as if I had the mantle of tour guide. All that was missing is my black-and-white suit with a chauffeurs’ hat. I peeked through the rear view mirror at my parents and felt so grateful to them and for their relationship. They looked so cute sitting in the back, holding each others’ hands.
This was the perfect, captive setting to hear story after story from my parents as we toured through the Dutch and German countryside. About two hours away from Rothenburg, the talking and storytelling began to wane, and we all three just enjoyed the German scenery and joy of peacefully being with each other.
I have a very eclectic taste in music and I have been known to have a ton of 1950s artists in my collection. One of my favorites is Nat King Cole.
So when the conversation subsided, I slipped in my Best of Nat King Cole CD. Words could not describe my calm state of mind as I was driving through this gorgeous scenery with the setting sun, listening to “The Very Thought of You,” “Unforgettable” and other Nat King Cole classics while my parents were snuggled in the back seat. With another glance in the review mirror, I noticed my father now has his arm around my mother and she is tenderly resting her head on his shoulder.
The sweet, mellow, loving energy in the car was undeniable and equally indescribable.
All of a sudden Nat started in with “Tenderly”. I can still hear Nat soulfully singing:
“The evening breeze caressed the trees tenderly
The trembling trees embraced the breeze tenderly
Then you and I came wandering by
And lost in a sigh were we
The shore was kissed by sea and mist tenderly
I can’t forget how two hearts met breathlessly
Your arms opened wide and closed me inside
You took my lips, you took my love so tenderly”
At some point during this song, I heard my father quietly ask my mother “Mignon, do you remember this song?” I discretely glanced in the review mirror and unintentionally felt as though I was intruding on an intimate scene that was meant only for them. My mother nodded and then quietly asked my father, “do you remember that summer evening we were in the park the first time you kissed me?”
I could not help but look back again and my father’s facial expression revealed the full measure of his memory and emotion.
His eyes were red and moist. His lips were tight one instant and then appeared to quiver the next as he was reliving this very intimate moment while raw emotions involuntarily took hold. After a few moments, he gently whispered, “this was our song. Mignon, you were the best decision I have ever made. I love you. Thank you.”
My mother said nothing. She did not have to. Her love for my father was more pure and obvious at that moment than I had ever witnessed.
At about this point, my eyes also began to swell with emotion and I found myself emotionally transfixed, with a lump in my throat and a heart ready to burst. I tried to stay focused on the road; we were, after all, on the notoriously fast German autobahn, and in order to stay safe I had to stay focused.
But there seemed to be another reason and that was that my parents were sharing a very intimate moment and I did not want to interrupt it in anyway. Concomitantly, I did not want this moment to stop. I was deeply moved that I was able to witness and hear this story from a very unique perspective.
I had never heard much about my parents’ courtship and to me this was priceless. As the song began to fade to its close, I took one last quick peek in the mirror and I saw my parents giving each other a sweet, short kiss.
With that last image, I smiled, enjoyed a soothing sigh and it was as if an imaginary film director screamed “cut, that is a wrap.”
To this day, when I hear Nat King Cole (yes, I have his full collection of greatest hits), especially his version of “Tenderly,” I am instantly transported back in time to a drive through the European countryside.
There, I had the best seat in the house to singularly witness a loving, unrehearsed, parental play previewing that scenic evening.
The golden glow of the setting sun.
The story line?
My parents’ first kiss, their song and their affection for each other as young love strolled through a park, hand in hand.
This moment, this memory, this song, this story means the world to me. Words fall woefully short while trying to describe the full measure of my emotions and gratitude for my parents and their willingness to let me be a part of their tender reminiscing.
Stories have always been and will always be a powerful tool we use to teach, lead and unite our clans, communities and companies.
Storytelling brought the earliest humans together physically, emotionally and mentally. Stories stressed the groups’ shared virtues, goals and commonality. They helped the group, tribe or community feel united, giving individuals a sense of identity and belonging.
Storytelling is not a recounting of mere occurrences. No – they are narratives full of emotion, passion and perspective. Stories told around campfires, watering holes and firesides educated, entertained and inspired the group members.
Through my fathers’ stories, I learned about his life, my mother’s life, the lives of my grandparents and other relatives. To profoundly understand my story, it is imperative to understand their stories. Without understanding our ancestors’ histories, hardships, accomplishments and what motivated them it is easy to dismiss them.
Stories can be healing and cathartic. Telling stories to our children, grandchildren, employees, clients and others is one of the most important things we can do for the people we love and serve. To hear their stories, to share our own, to find commonalities. It helps all of us feel less alone. We build and foster inclusiveness by sharing stories that inspire, edify and enrich.
Our world needs inclusiveness now more than ever. The widening political, racial, social and religious chasm seems to have the world at its own throat. You cannot turn on the news without hearing about another mass shooting, bombing or global conflict.
We are inundated with negativity, judgment and shame. This drives feelings of isolation, emptiness and insecurity.
Do not get me wrong; I’m not suggesting we bury our heads in the sand to avoid being informed. Being informed is essential to our survival. Yet, I believe it is critical to create and cultivate stories that drive inclusiveness, belonging and emotional safety. Allowing society to overwhelm our friends, children and employees with a tsunami of negativity is a grave disservice.
The world we live in is fragmenting on every level. This is exactly why we need to tell our stories — especially those that are positive.
Why did I love hearing my father’s stories? Why do my kids love hearing mine?
I believe we gravitate towards these stories because we crave belonging, civility and warmth. Witnessing my father and mother nostalgically reminisce “their song” and their first kiss while cuddling in the back seat of my car was in stark contrast to the hate, bickering and divisiveness all too common in society today.
It was that small act of tender compassion I witnessed that afternoon in Germany that renewed my faith in human decency, civility and true love.
Stories, especially those told from a personal perspective, bring people together, create understanding and empathy and unite us as humans. Rules, beliefs and theories have a tendency to tear us apart, divide and isolate.
Let me say that more succinctly. Stories unite, rules separate.
I urge you to solicit stories from your parents, grandparents and others. When you show a sincere interest, you will be amazed at what you will hear, the images painted, the scripts written and the warmth and love you will feel.
So the next time you want to connect with your kids, tell them a story. Ditch the theories, philosophy and rules. Your kids want to feel part of something. They want to feel like they belong. They want to be inspired. They want you to lead.
And dare I say, they want to see you get lovingly emotional in the back seat and share a sweet kiss while reliving young love, with Nat crooning tenderly in the background.Tags: "Tenderly", Art Coombs, dad, Don't Just Manage -- LEAD!, fathers, Germany, mom, mother, Nat King Cole, parents, power of stories, power of storytelling, reminiscing, Rothenburg, rules, stories, storytelling
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This post was written by Art