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Faith in Vermont: Tall Tales

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Posted on March 5, 2019 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



My daughters often ask for stories about me when I was young, and I often disappoint them. There are a few classics that they never seem to tire of, consisting mostly of the handful of misbehaviors in my otherwise dull, law-abiding life (like the time my protest over the new door color of my childhood home ended in a paint spill all over the driveway, for instance, or the time I helped friends smuggle a drum of ice cream out of our college cafeteria.) 

The surprising thing is that, as a writer who traffics in stories, I seem to have a terrible memory for stories of my own. Or perhaps that’s one reason why I write: Any stories that I don’t set down on paper quickly enough are at risk of vanishing into the swirling mists of to-do lists and calendar details in my brain. Just the other day, my eldest daughter told a story about our family. 

“That didn’t happen,” I said.

“Yes, it did,” she insisted. “I read it in one of your columns.”

 So, there you go. 

I blame in part my status as an only child. It’s clear to me that, for stories to survive in families, they must be told and re-told. The more people there are doing the telling, the better: My daughters reinforce each other’s personal histories by continually telling stories about what they did last week, last month, last year.

Accuracy is the tricky thing; not just whether one remembers, but what one remembers. Even within the same family, a single event may be recalled differently by various witnesses. This was made strikingly clear to me when I read Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated, for a book club. Westover recounts a harrowing childhood, but at numerous points in her story she pauses to acknowledge that other people present remember events differently. Indeed, following the publication of Educated, various details of Westover’s account have been disputed by her parents and six siblings. 

In brief: Retelling our family stories from our faulty memories may be problematic when done in public. This is true in Westover’s case, and it’s also true when my daughters share family stories in their Sunday School class. 

Whether the distortions in my daughters’ stories are due to faulty memories or to their penchant for drama is debatable. Thus far, I’ve simply been grateful that the stories they choose to share feature my husband, Erick, more than myself.

I’m also grateful that their Sunday School teacher, Mitch, is a friend of ours who knows to take my daughters’ tales with a grain of salt. Still, whenever Mitch approaches my husband or myself after Sunday School, my palms start sweating a little.

“Um, so….” he usually begins.

“Um, so...I heard that when Erick was the only adult at home with ten kids playing in the house, he left and went next door to the neighbors’ to chainsaw some wood.” (Okay, that story is absolutely true, and it was not a pretty scene when I got back.)

“Um, so…I heard that Erick threw the cat down the stairs, and you called him a psychopath.” (Exaggeration: My husband removed the cat a little more roughly from the room than I deemed necessary, and I mentioned – tongue in cheek – that cruelty to animals is correlated with psychopathy.)

And the latest: “Um, so…I heard that when you all went skiing yesterday, you got lost and almost died.” 

This is absolutely false. What happened was this:

As February was wrapping up and we realized that our cross-country skiing opportunities were winding down, my husband (yes, my husband again!) suggested that we skip our usual home base of Rikert Nordic Center and explore the trails around the Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen. 

This in itself was enough to elicit complaints from our daughters, who do not embrace change. We ignored their protests and pulled up at the Blueberry Hill Outdoor Center, which is nestled among the hills and lakes of the Green Mountain National Forest. 

All of our four daughters are now self-sufficient on skis: They ski at different speeds, but all are capable of navigating intermediate trails. Still, since it had been several years since we skied  Blueberry Hill, and since we were accompanied by whining skiers, we decided to try the “Beginner’s Trail.” 

Two things became quickly apparent: 

1.    The trails at Blueberry Hill are not well groomed, and

2.    The trails at Blueberry Hill are not well marked.

The “Beginner’s Trail” was beginner only in that it was relatively flat (aside from a heart-stoppingly steep hill at the very end, which required one to aim precisely during one’s descent for a narrow bridge across a stream.) The surroundings were beautiful, but the trail was a 5k slog in which we often had to crash through brush poking out of the snow, or bend double to avoid cracking our heads on downed tree trunks. Knowing whether we were on the right trail at any given time was tricky, given the absence of trail markings. 

The closest we were to being “lost” came when we emerged from the woods to the Ripton-Goshen Road. We knew this road would take us back to Blueberry Hill, but our ski trail had disappeared. The paper map from the Outdoor Center indicated that we should cross the road, but no trail was obvious on the other side. As the sun had begun its golden descent behind the mountains, we decided that the best option was to remove our skis and walk back along the road.

This is when our daughters’ complaints reached their crescendo, and the two cars that passed us at low speeds during the few minutes we walked along the road would later be taken as proof that we had “almost died.” (Soon enough, we saw our trail across the road and skied back to our truck; the final hill would be remembered by our daughters as the highlight of the ski.)

Why any of these family stories should be worthy of sharing in Sunday School – what any of them has to do with religion – has puzzled me. But when I take them all together, I find commonalities: That life often teeters on the edge between “adventure” and “danger,” and that our parents do not always seem to be in control.

Even if their retellings are exaggerated, those underlying themes are absolutely true. God help us all. 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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