The Case of The Missing People

–by Heather Murphy

When I was young, it was not unusual for my father to “crash” at the apartment I lived in with my mother and stepfather. I used to picture him smashing his blue car into our living room when I heard the adults talking about him coming over. He often missed it when they held court, most weekends, with their hash and quadraphonic stereo, preferring the bar instead. He would come over later in the evenings to play cards and talk, or, he would come over drunk, in the middle of the night, and get into my bed–dressed–with his boots on, smelling of old spice and beer, and he would tell me stories about his days at school with the nuns and how mean they were, and we would play animal, mineral, or vegetable, or name that tune, until he would start snoring. I hated it when he fell asleep.

When I got older, we would stay up talking on the weekends, long after everyone else was asleep. My father told countless, colorful anecdotes about his life while I made apple-butter sandwiches and Irish Breakfast tea. He told stories about people and events in our family that I should have written down.

The range and depth of what is lost is incalculable.

I would play his favorite records, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, and listen to him, utterly transfixed—he would become so animated as he embellished his tales–until he would fall over sideways on our sofa from too much beer, and because I could out stay-awake anyone, then I would cover him up with a blanket or a jacket and return to my room, to my journals and Doors’ albums, to ruminate over the things he’d said.

Why didn’t I write down the stories when I had the chance?

When I grew up, I decided to be a writer. I wanted to write people’s stories down. I began to talk to alcoholics because they were the only ones still awake after the party was over and they were always ready to talk. I naturally gravitated towards them. Talking to them was so much more intense than talking to almost anyone else and their energy hardly seemed to flag. They were characters and that’s what I thought I was looking for. Outrageous and compelling opinions and ideas seemed to flow effortlessly from them, but often with the curious quality of smoke from an opium pipe, slowly filling a room. They told old war stories, dished gossip with impunity, and, I think, most importantly, acted as if we were the best of friends, thrown together by destiny to do great things.

I never thought of any of it as seeking to recapture what I’d had with my father, until today.

After his untimely death, I left the East Coast and took up travelling, driving a van across the country to prowl the taverns of postage stamp sized towns in the American West, tape recorder and tiny notebook in pocket. I was hoping to find out the truth of the human condition and get the stories of those bound to its contracts.

The stories I collected listening to people recount their lives to me filled several notebooks. Some were unforgettable characters, others, drunken caricatures. Some made me think of my own family members, causing me to place frantic late-night calls to the East Coast, to my mother and any living grandparents who would talk to me, asking them to tell me their stories, worried they would die before someone recorded their histories. My grandfather had been at the Battle of the Bulge and now he was dead, the story he’d repeated to us kids, a rabbit receding into the underbrush of my memory.

Why didn’t I write it down?

My mother has been gone for five years now. How many times have I suffered the disappointment of knowing I cannot get names, places, pieces of history that I desperately need? How much is lost?

Again, incalculable. Plagued by sighs and question marks, I pore through photographs and old letters of hers from before I was born, wondering who she was back then. I ask my stepfather for new information, plying him with wine and desserts, banging on the bars of his memory with my stick. I go over the old travel journals with a fine-toothed comb, looking for clues between the lines about campground fees and sea-food buffets in Key West, searching for her story.

Now that they are gone, and their secrets with them, I’m left with no choice but to fashion a story about my parents with what I do have. That is the only thing that’s to be done. I will crack open my mother’s favorite champagne, play my father’s favorite records on his old turn-table, and spread the contents of the boxes I’m left with all around the room, like a detective starting a new case.

81 thoughts on “The Case of The Missing People

    1. So very elusive…these memories that weave the fabric of our identity. Intricately a part of us, yet seemingly out of reach. Beautiful words so deftly handled. Can’t wait to read more….

      1. How kind you are, dear friend. I think of your mother; how could I help it? What stories did she take with her, what secrets?

  1. Can that really be a picture of Tina? Who is she with?
    They both left much too early. Billy felt like a 40 year old orphan when Nan died.

  2. I agree with you. I wished I was able to talk with my Grandfather and written down the stories of the old country. But now most of them are gone and little is left. I asked my children if they want my stories but as of yet the answer has been no. So I have blogged about them for prosperity sake. If you get a chance give some of them a read. Please, let me know if you enjoy them.

    1. Don’t ask, just tell. All children are ungrateful. When you’re gone, they’ll probe their memories, so just keep talking and blogging. I’ll be sure to take a look. Thanks for reading.

  3. And keep writing posts about then – I do occasionally too and yes, it’s only your ‘truth’ but what’s wrong with that?
    it’s always a photo that triggers me and I do love yours.

    1. The photos, and the music, and the places we went. When I go back east and walk the nature trail at Cape May, or visit the Poconos, memories return. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thank you for the words. I hope you don’t mind my borrowing a line to tell a story you compelled me to write. Thank you.

    1. I don’t mind at all. Inspiration is a wonderful thing. You never know where it will come from! Thank you for reading.

  5. I’ve been working on my genealogy and I can’t tell you how many times I have asked myself the same questions – WHy didn’t I ask more when I had the chance? Why didn’t I write it down when I heard it? Beautiful post – thank you for sharing.

    1. I am glad this reached you. Thank you for taking the time to share your feelings. So much invaluable information is completely unavailable to me. I think I am still in denial about this. It doesn’t seem possible! Where do the stories go to live when the people die?!

  6. It’s natural to regret not writing the histories down when you had the chance. More important, however, is that you appear to have been an eager listener when people had the urges to tell their stories. The world would be a more humane place if there were a lot more willing, engaged listeners, and I suspect your father and other family members greatly appreciated your interest.

    1. Thank you, Karl, for your thoughtful comments. It is natural to have that regret–knowing you missed something. At the end of every season, I have a sudden last minute anxiety about it being over before I fully experienced it. The more you know, the more you know you’re missing!

  7. You’re absolutely right. Why don’t we write things down more often? I’m actually in the middle of writing down my father’s stories. I was given a second chance – he had a stroke that affected his language center about 4 months into the writing process. And I felt like I had lost everything, my father and all that rich storytelling… But he has recovered much of his language skills and though a lot of the memories are out of timeline alignment, I am piecing it all together. My labor of love – not really a labor though, a blessing. Glad I found your blog! I’ll keep on reading all your stories! And writing down/recording as many of people’s stories as I can.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. You and your father were given another chance and it sounds like you are making the most of the opportunity. Listen to his stories and be thankful!

  8. There really are no secrets… it eventually comes together even after people are gone from our lives. Some clue turns up unexpectedly, some piece that was missing to make sense of it all. Thank you for this and the journey down musical memory lane.

  9. I often think to pen down these little anecdotes and moments. However, am mostly unable to capture the essence. When I re-read what Ive written, it seems just a small fragment of the moment but I guess posterity will add the charm and love and adoration.
    Brilliant piece and loved your writing and your quest for gathering your past 🙂
    congratulations and thank you for sharing your space with us.

    1. I know just what you mean–sometimes it does fall flat. When I started this piece, it was not a post about my father, and memory, it just turned itself into that in the span of time I gave myself to write a post. Funny what shows up. Thanks for the nice comment.

  10. While reading this, I think to myself my parents and my grandparents are still alive. And I’ve been taking for granted all of their good stories. Why not write them down? It’s amazing the amount of good stories they have to tell, and the more they go back in time the better.

  11. There is an illusion that stories are memories and memories are recall of facts. They aren’t. Your memories of your father’s stories are almost as good as the stories themselves, maybe better. Remember that — it might bring you solace, and it might inspire you to keep writing what you remember and spend more of your energy on that than on longing for the story your father would have told. I don’t mean to be harsh — I just think a lot about memory (I blogged about it just yesterday) and I think a lot about writing. You know what you are? A listener. You are a giver of gifts to the people whose stories you listen to. And you give yourself a gift when you write them down and fancy them into something more elaborate and thoughtful than the original was. Thank you for that. We need more listeners and more story weavers. (Happy to have found your blog)

    1. Jen, thank you so much for taking the time to make this valuable comment. I appreciate the reminder and I completely agree with you–the memories have plenty of magic left in them.

  12. My grandfather served on the German side of WWII. He never talked about it and it was just assumed he never would. When I was a child I asked him why he never spoke of his time in war and he seemed surprised when he said, “I didn’t think anyone would want to hear it.”

    Most people are happy to tell their story to a listening audience.

    1. Those in Vietnam who were close with my family never spoke of it, EVER. Some stories are never going to see the light of day..

  13. There is something very powerful and undefinable in memories and nostalgia…may be it’s because we know that things will never be the same again, we will never have that life again

    1. This post has hit home with a lot of people. It’s a good reminder to communicate with our loved ones. Thank you for your comment and for reading.

  14. This is awesome. My dad always had such great stories about his family. I never thought I’d actually lose him so early, and I too kick myself for not writing things down.

    1. I’m sorry about your dad. You’d be surprised what will come back to you if you sit down to it. Take your memories and embellish them. Thanks for the comment.

  15. My father has so many stories. But I don’t listen very carefully and I surely don’t write them down. It’s because I’m somewhat ashamed of him. And his stories. He’s an alcoholic. Whether his stories are about being drunk and doing outlandish things or if I only recall that he was drunk for some of the happenings of which he speaks, they turn me off. I feel horrible about it, feel like I need to get over it. What if I don’t until it’s too late?

    1. Randee, for years I was pissed at my father, so I get where you are coming from. Take my advice and start using a different mindset where he’s concerned. Try cultivating serious compassion and interest, and at the same time, detachment from him. He’s just another person, and we are all just barely holding it together.

  16. Lovely post. I’ve found that the clues that we gather lead us to ourselves and it is there that we find the answers 🙂

  17. Beautiful post! There are many stories my mom and dad tell me about their life – Mom’s idyllic childhood on their family’s farm and dad’s sea faring days. Your post has got me thinking, I should write them down somewhere so I can remember and re-live them for as long as I live.

    1. Great idea, thanks for reading. Even if you get down some of the details of stories, like names, events, a lot of it will come back to you when you’re ready to write it. You have already put yourself into a new mindset of listening, and that is the key.

  18. Whimsy, thank you for this, it has really brought back some regrets of my own. I think I believed my parents and grandparents would always be around and there would always be time to find out this stuff. I did not want to face the fact that loved ones do die. However, I do carry the cherished memories and I guess that will have to do. Although recently I was reminded of a great time as a kid by a lady I met. Our parents knew each other way back when and we have shared memories of that time. That was a true blessing.

  19. beautiful wards, i luv setting to my parent & my grandparents to hear about them lives how it was , the memories they share makes most the time comparing them lives with mine ,, i luved your post. thanx for sharing

  20. That was very engrossing. My imagination was right there with you. But also know that having only your memories gives it this fantastical reality. Any knowing all the details can in some cases take away the majesty of the stories. Thanks for writing! hope to see more soon.

  21. I heard the stories my mother told of her life countless times over the years, when I was younger–stories of her life before I was conceived, Each time, I would listen with renewed interest, as if hearing the stories for the first time; and each time, I had a new question about her stories, which I had not considered previously. I also knew many things about her, which I experienced first hand, the sort of person she was, her kindly spirit.

    I’m now nearly the age at which she died. The generation, which followed mine, barely remembers “Oma”; some were born after her death, and none of the subsequent generation thereafter, ever knew her at all. It seems any stories I remember of her have much more meaning to me and my siblings, those who knew her personally, than they do to subsequent generations, which never knew her person and to whom she is just some obscure relative.

    I will often walk through a local cemetery where I live. I read the names and dates on the old graves, the graves with no flowers on them. There’s Mary, and Myrtle; there’s John and Clyde. Each might have been a really great person, who I would very much liked to have known. However, I will never know any of them and the only people who could tell me who they were and what they did in this place are also gone. The only legacy, the only memory they leave, the only thing I will ever know about any of them, is the name and dates on that stone.


    1. Manfred, this is such a beautifully crafted response. I think you should blog it, and begin it with, “Dear Whimsy.”

      Keep visiting your back pages, every chance you get. The limitless capacity of the brain to hold information means there are still memories to recover and savor, to write about. I’ve passed the age of my father when he departed for the sand hills, and it’s been twenty five years, but I still get fresh stuff when I really go looking, and no one has the parts of him I do. Same with your mother.

      I can’t thank you enough for this response to my post. It was very meaningful.

  22. Thank you so much for a thoughtful, provocative essay. My father was a professor and a minister, and spoke and wrote as second nature. I never dreamed there would come a time when he would no longer be able to share his stories. But now, now that I am ready to hear them, now that I understand their significance and want to hold onto them, he has seriously impaired (and painful) speech, and he is no longer able to type, let alone write legibly. Such loss, and yet still I can sit next to him.
    I have nominated you for a Liebster Award. Check it out:
    Very impressed with your beautiful, collaborative blog. Congratulations!

    1. Yes, you can still sit next to him. Thank you for this poignant comment and moving me to tears. I miss my parents.

      I can’t tell you how I’ve enjoyed coaxing myself to bring up new memories, lately, new stories. I feel totally free to embellish them, too. Why not? I only do so with what I know of them, hopefully in this way, I get to know them even better. Know them as people, not just “my parents.”

      Enjoy the time you have with your father, I know how heart wrenching it is to see him deteriorating, trust me. My heart goes out to you.

      I’m going to check out your site now, thanks ahead of time, for the honor. A Leibster Award, huh? Awesome!

  23. Yes, lots of “if onlys” after our parents pass. Well written, thanks for the read. Mrisa (

  24. Thanks for your post. We none of us can recreate the past, but we take a little of it with us into our today and tomorrow. It was a poignant look into your growing up years, and I enjoyed it.

  25. I found comfort in reading this post, knowing I am not alone with my feelings and questions. My father passed away in Jan. 2013, at the age of 84. Having had a somewhat happy, though dysfunctional childhood, many questions were never asked and many stories were never told. Amazing what one discovers when a loved one passes. This has only left me with a deeper yearning for the truth. All I have are photographs now. Moments in my past (or that of my fathers) proving how little I knew of him. Who he really was. Moments and memories I now realize should mean something. I continue to put together as much of the past as I can, to pass on to my child and grandchildren. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Deb, thank you for taking the time to share your feelings. I really value your comments. I’m sorry for the loss of your father. Your deeper yearning for the truth will help you piece together the mystery of who your father was, as a human being, I’m sure of it. It’s certainly a compelling path to traverse and I wish you all the best in doing so.

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