Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Things We Don't Know about the People We Know

I don't have a personal blog, and so every once in a while when I have some random revelation, I write it here...and feel vaguely guilty. This post is not about writing, at least not directly, so if you have no interest whatsoever in my general life observations, stop here.

Wait, wait! Not THERE actually. First let me point out that there is SOME relevance to writing here, both because the things people don't know about themselves is a big theme in my writing, and because the different slices of a person that show in different areas of life is a character development issue as well.

But all that (valid) rationalization aside, this post is about my father's retirement. My father retired at the end of June after 24 years with the same company and nearly 50 in the construction industry. At 69, he was still installing custom stairs and rails, the kind you find in upscale new houses where the staircases alone cost tens of thousands of dollars. After his 65th birthday party the company newsletter featured his picture with the caption "the world's oldest living installer", but his more common nickname was The Legend.

Today, his company had a gathering, and one of the events on the agenda was recognition of his 24 years of service. The men put on ties over their t-shirts in honor of the occasion. One of his co-workers pulled out a guitar and performed a song he'd written to commemorate the event--complete with slideshow--and then he presented my father with an oddly shaped block of wood, painted gold. The block of wood, he explained, was something my father had invented, something they all used now. It was named after him. I'd never known it existed until that moment, but one of his much younger co-workers said later that my father had given him one the day he'd started, and that was several years ago.

Now, it might not seem so surprising that I'd missed a detail like that. I am, after all, 41 years old. But I live less than a mile from my parents, and they babysit for my daughter a couple of days a week. We usually have dinner with them one night a week, and I talk to my mother virtually every day. I know several of my father's co-workers and some of their wives. And I knew the reputation he had at work--both for the ability to work out almost any construction problem and for his tendency to ask the new guys he was training, "You ever think about quitting?" But I didn't know about this funny little piece of wood that several of his friends stepped up to have autographed.

There were a few other surprises in the stories as well, but the details probably aren't significant. What seemed significant was the fact that there's a big difference between what we know and what we see, between what we know and what we can really understand. I think that on some level we all know that the people in our lives are "different" in other places and with other people than they are with us. I think that's true of virtually everyone, not because we're insincere or hiding things but simply because different circumstances and different people draw different things to the foreground.

We may even have descriptions of those differences in our minds. A husband may know that his gentle and feminine wife is a high-powered decision maker at work, but knowing is often different from seeing. The mother of a soldier may know that he is of necessity harder and colder and more calculated on the job than she's ever seen him in her kitchen, but knowing the fact is often different from knowing the person that someone becomes under those other circumstances.

What if we did have to write them as characters? If you had to create a character based on your husband in his office or your grandmother with her bridge club or your son teaching Sunday school or your daughter when she's jumping out of an airplane, could you do it? Do you really know who those people around you are in those moments, or would you only, without ever realizing it, take the "character" you know at home and drop him or her into that place or activity? Are we doing that now, in our minds, without ever realizing it?


awannabe said...

I guess I'm guilty of it. I do write about the "characters" in my life in the past tense. But it only makes me realize how much I don't know about them. Oh,, I'd love to get inside their heads.

NeoAuteur said...

I agree. Getting to know people at a personal level is necessary.

Barb said...

I think one reason I'm such a poor judge of character--and have been married so often --is that I tend to extrapolate TOO much. Like, knowing that your dad saved those people from the airplane crash, I would tend to think that everything he did was heroic in nature. Um, probably not true. I think the problem with living with characters in my head is that the people they are based on rarely live up to that in real life.

Margo said...

I haven't even gotten through your whole post but I'm just DYING to know...what is the name of the "block of wood" ?

Margo said...

Ok, I just went back and read the next sentence, which say something like, "It is named after him."


"Never mind!"

absolutelytrue said...

Loved reading this.. very thought provoking. But I want to know more about the block of wood! It's really going to be bugging me until I know more.

CK Holder said...

This post made me think of my two dads. (One was my biological father and the other my "real" dad.) I got to know each of them in more depth after they died than I ever did while they were living. I knew each in the context of my life but got to know them in the context of their own lives after they died.

One was as simple as speakers at his funeral, but the other took the last two years of my life as I settled his estate, sold his house, dealt with everything that he owned.

I would give anything to have seen the other side while either of them were living. You have been given a gift.

Lisa McGlaun said...

My father has owned an auto repair shop and parts business for over 50 years. I was suprised to find out that he'd invented a piece of test equipment that was used regularly in his field during the '70's and '80's. In my dad's words, "It was for cars before those darn computers took over everything."

Great, thought provoking post.