Other People’s Stories

Last month, a very random, very intriguing, very odd thought occurred to me:

How many stories are we in?

Lemme back up. Every one of us has stories where strangers play the starring role – the hilarious stories, the devastating ones, those times when someone did something extraordinary or was a complete jackass. Those stories become family lore.

Which means that complete strangers are a part of my family’s history. Like the man and his son (we assume) who were headed out of the theater after seeing the first Shrek (yes, Nick and I watched cartoon movies even before we had kids). The man was holding the little boy (who was maybe three years old) and telling him, “Look – every time other people think something’s funny but you don’t think it’s funny, you don’t have to yell out, ‘THAT’S NOT FUNNY!'” This amused us so much – the young lad, clearly not understanding the Shrek jokes that went over his head, becoming mad when everyone around him was laughing at what was OBVIOUSLY NOT FUNNY… and then yelling at them to stop – that we have told this story for more than ten years.

We also have a story about the guy in front of us in the dairy barn at the Minnesota State Fair who turned around and paid for Ella’s and my ice cream, just because. We told everyone about him and still revisit his kindness ourselves from time to time.

I have no idea who these people are. Moreover, I doubt that they have any idea that they are being discussed around someone else’s dinner table (or blog *cough*) – and yet we share this bizarre connection because they have helped weave the fabric of our family’s life.

I’d just never stopped to think about the fact that if other people are in my stories, surely I’m in other people‘s stories, too.

People who I’ve never met have talked about me – in the car on the way home from the theater, near the copy machine at the office, over Thanksgiving dinner. I am a fixture in other people’s stories.


(Side note: a parallel idea occurred to me after returning from a trip to Disney World as a kid. I noticed that the same family was in the background of more than one of our photos – on different days, in different locations – which meant that my family was probably in other families’ photos, too. Which led to my wondering just how many strangers’ photos I appear in. Which led to a vague idea for a movie [a thriller? drama? Academy-award-winning, obviously] centered around searching for the random people in photographs. If you have insider cinema connections, do let me know. This could be big.)


Some stories, I can probably anticipate. I broke my leg rather spectacularly in third grade: tripping over a classmate while playing capture the flag and then being accidentally slid into by another classmate (exactly where the break was), then attempting to walk on those bones (which, according to the doctor, were broken so badly it looked like I’d “fallen from a second story window)”, then screaming “loud enough to wake the dead” (according to my BFF). It was epic and is certainly part of my family lore… but it never occurred to me until now that perhaps my classmates remember it, too.
Yes, the cast ran the length of my leg. And yes, I was hospitalized – for 8 days.

Maybe, when my third-grade peers share stories about That Time In Elementary School, my wake-the-dead screams play a prominent role. Or maybe, when they visit a museum and see a kid on crutches, they tell their date of the time when their classmate was carried up the staircases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by their teacher. (True story. Every time she hoisted me into her arms, Mrs. Danielson would say, “Good thing I ate my Wheaties today!”)

That story – the broken leg – I can understand being included in someone else’s anthology. It was an obvious, shared Moment. I’m sure there are more, however; Moments that I thought were private. Like that day in middle school when I stepped out of the orthodontist building and onto a sheet of black ice that sent me flying sideways – as though my legs literally had been knocked to the side by some unseen force – and crashing to the ground. My mom and I laughed so hard, we could barely breathe; when we tell the story nearly 30 years later, we still chuckle. I don’t remember anyone else being around, but what if someone was (like, sitting in their parked car or in the building across the street)… and they saw it… and they’re still chuckling about my ridiculous launch? My “private” Moments may not have been so private after all.
Braces, seventh grade.
This is just… Um… Wow.

And what about the times I don’t remember at all, the Moments I didn’t know were Moments? Did I cut someone off and cause them to miss a flight? Did I say something breezily casual (“I like your necklace!”) that turned out to be the only positive thing someone heard that day? Did I say something in passing that wasn’t meant to be heard (“Omg – is he blind?”) but someone did hear and their son was blind and now I’m the cautionary tale of how people can be asshats?

So many possibilities, really.

These kind of Moments happen often for people whose professions put them in contact with masses of folks on a regular basis: healthcare providers, transportation workers, cashiers and retail employees. I would venture that doctors, taxi drivers, and waiters have entire volumes of their lives where random people are the central characters. And teachers? Oh heck yes. Ask any teacher for a “good story” (whatever that means to him or her) and you’d better pull up a chair, turn off your phone, and pour yourself a glass.

(Side note 2: I was reminded by a friend a while back that, although certainly teachers’ stories are entertaining and enlightening – often containing true “teachable moments” that resonate far beyond the classroom – there is still a great value in not sharing all of those stories… at least, not with every audience and not without discretion. Kids deserve privacy even when they do the darndest things. They especially deserve it from those whose job it is to educate them and make them feel safe. It’s a lesson I’m still learning; I so appreciated the reminder.)

It used to be that we only heard about friends’ Moments when they told us in person. Today’s social media makes it incredibly easy for those Moments to become public. Sometimes, this really pisses me off — like when I see a story about someone live-Tweeting a  couple’s breakup, complete with photo “evidence.” (I realize that, because it’s happening in public, this is no longer truly a private moment… But that doesn’t mean I think it’s cool to share another person’s horrible experience with the entire world just for the sake of entertainment.)

Other times, stories about strangers make me remember why it is so fantastic to be a part of the human race. Without social media, the larger world would undoubtedly be unaware of ordinary-but-remarkable Moments (like this time when a young Target employee helped count an older customer’s change, inadvertently teaching a lesson to the other customers in line) – and, as I’ve said before, I think that sharing kindness is pretty much always a good idea.

Now more than ever, all of our lives are intertwined. At any moment, we can become Moments in someone else’s life. At any time, we can enter into other people’s stories… even when we don’t realize it.

Which is a super weird and kind of creepy thought.
It’s also inevitable so I’m gonna try to roll with it.

I have no idea how many people’s stories I’m already in – but I’m going to do my darndest to ensure that I’m in future stories for positive, and not cautionary/asshatty, reasons.

Or, at the very least, I hope I’m a source of comic relief. I mean, if anyone actually saw Fenwick drop a deuce by the candles or Jambi pop a squat in produce… or if that poor man I terrified in Puerto Rico has recovered from his heart attack… or if the other passengers on the plane noticed the ginger ale dripping from my seat… I’m probably well on my way.



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