At the beginning of each year people tend to reflect on their lives, considering past actions and experiences while preparing to make resolutions for future actions and experiences. For me, the beginning of the year always brings memories of family gatherings from my youth—times when my mother’s parents would gather their children and grandchildren together during the holiday season for various dinners and parties full of shouting children, laughter of adults, and the occasional argument about food preparation. I loved these gatherings. They were full of stories.
My Grannie and Papa often told stories about growing up in their different families, how they met and fell in love via letters sent back and forth to Papa’s naval base in Korea, and about their early life as young parents. I knew the places and people Grannie spoke of, as we often visited her parents and siblings in the White Mountains of northern Arizona where she grew up. Papa’s family, however, lived far away in Michigan, so stories about his family always seemed to carry more mystery and excitement. There was an edge of uncertainty that thrilled me. Of all the stories Papa told during the holiday season, we could always count on hearing one in particular every Christmas Eve just before we all went home.
Papa’s family lived in an old clapboard house in a small town somewhere in the middle of Michigan. It was Christmas Eve and he was a boy of about eight or nine years. As it was particularly cold outside that night, his father put extra wood in the cast iron stove they used to heat the house. The family went to bed, and Papa buried down deep in his blankets with Old Black Terry, his dog, sleeping at his feet. Several hours later Papa woke up to hear Terry barking madly in the other room. At first he tried to ignore him, but eventually Papa got up, walked into the main room of the house, and saw Terry barking at the stove which had grown so hot it was glowing red. Papa ran to get his parents who quickly got the children, and Terry, out of the house so his father could deal with the stove. They discovered that somehow it wasn’t drafting correctly and, had Terry not alerted the family, it is likely the house would have caught fire with the family still asleep inside.
I loved this story as a child. It was exciting and Papa told it with a thrill in his voice and ended it with gratitude for Old Terry, the black mutt he’d found wandering on the streets as a pup. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to appreciate this story on a deeper level. Not only did Terry likely save my Papa’s life, he helped keep my family together decades later. Because of family gatherings where we shared stories like these, I have cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who I know and love because of our shared experiences and mutual history. We all know the remarkable coincidences and chance meetings that took place to bring these two people together. We know how they met, how they fell in love, and we know who they are because we know their stories. They are part of me. Their stories are now my own.
Papa is sick now. Cancer riddles his body and he is not expected to live much longer. Every time I speak with him I cherish the 36 years I’ve shared with him. While I dread the day I’m forced to say goodbye, I know that his narrative will live on for generations in the stories his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will share with their own families. As this new year begins, I can’t help but wonder what will come next for me. This year, in particular, has many people worried about what will happen and whether or not significant changes will happen in our country and the world. The fear of change can feel overwhelming and unbearable. With all the worry and anticipation, though, I think about Old Black Terry and remember that we never know what small, seemingly insignificant experience can change our lives for the better. His life was short and it is easy to overlook the tale of one dog and his boy. It is in these personal stories, however, where we can find hope, peace, and comfort when times are uncertain or when life is particularly difficult.
For that, Terry, I am grateful.
*Naomie Barnes is an English writing instructor at Utah State University