"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

A generation removed from his family’s traumatic history, he grew up surrounded by the after effects

By on February 26, 2019 in Uncategorized with 1 Comment

By Aaron Loeffelbein

Every day, we are inundated with a flood of sensationalized headlines and click-bait articles of dubious veracity. 

Aaron Loeffelbein

On the one hand, we are annoyed and on the other, we can’t resist the dash cam crashes and cute cat videos. We get sucked in by a catchy headline only to be bombarded with an onslaught of advertisements. 

Yes, we need to be discerning of the digital content that we consume. However, I think this skepticism has caused us to often doubt the stories people tell us. When a gripping new memoir is released, readers often question the truthfulness of the story. 

I saw this built-in skepticism play out recently as I prepared to read the memoir Educated by Tara Westover, which was one of the most talked about and acclaimed books of 2018. It chronicles Westover’s journey from growing up in a survivalist family in Idaho with no formal education to earning a PhD from Cambridge University. 

It is North Central Regional Library’s featured book for its NCRL Reads program this spring and the author will be coming to Wenatchee and Omak in April.

I like to approach a new book by getting some background first. I look for reviews to see what I’m in for before committing. I noticed when I started to read reviews of Educated that many people questioned the authenticity of Westover’s story. It was too incredible. It wouldn’t be possible to overcome so much. 

Such intense and traumatic experiences including repeated car accidents and burns couldn’t have all happened to one family. Something triggered in me, I had to read this book!

I would venture to guess that most families have not had this number of tragic, life-altering accidents. 

My family has.

I am fortunate enough to be a generation removed from my family’s traumatic history, but I grew up surrounded by the after effects. 

For a long time, there were things we did not talk about at family gatherings. There were questions left unanswered and secrets held close, only hurting those who kept them.

My grandfather worked in auto-wrecking yards and raced cars as a hobby. When my dad was about eight years old, he was helping grandpa in the shop and at one point spilled flammable liquid on his coveralls. Later, he and his brother were doing what I’ve heard them call “experiments” (playing with fire), and my dad’s coveralls caught fire. His brother put the fire out and they went to the hospital. 

At least, that’s the story I’d always heard when I asked dad about the scars on his face and hands. 

What I didn’t hear until I was an adult was that instead of going to the closest hospital, they had to go to one much farther away. My grandpa had previously had a falling out with staff at the local hospital, preventing them from seeking help as quickly as possible. 

The infection that spread due to the delays nearly took dad’s life and did take a large portion of his ear.

I never heard much about the hospital drama with grandpa and each of my dad’s four siblings has a different recollection of this story, similar to the way Westover shares the various versions of her family history that she and her siblings remember.

In another family story I’d heard bits and pieces of through the years, there was a terrifyingly tragic car accident. In the aftermath of this accident, my dad was actually pronounced dead. No one in my family talked about what happened for decades. 

Last summer at our family reunion, my dad and his siblings shared the story. 

It was a foggy day and my dad and a few other family members were driving between Pendleton and Milton-Freewater, Oregon. 

They were all in a pickup, the driver was a foster child that my grandparents had taken in, underage and not licensed. He tried to pass the car in front of them and a horrific accident ensued. The accident was on the books for decades as one of the deadliest car accidents in Oregon’s history. There were several fatalities and initially, one of those was my dad.

What’s important to know here, more than the details of my family’s tragedies, is how holding on to these secrets has affected my dad and his siblings. The guilt, anger, loneliness and fear that they carried ate at them, triggering debilitating depression and anxiety. Only in finally sharing these stories, so many years later, did they begin to find freedom and healing together. 

They lost their childhood to these tragedies. The reality of death loomed so large in their lives, they were robbed of their innocence. Seeing their precious little brother’s face, forever altered, my dad’s siblings were faced with their own mortality and humanity.

Their shared history, now spoken out loud and no longer a secret, has knit my family members together. They are no longer alone with their painful memories. Sharing these stories has eased the guilt, fear and anxiety they carried alone for so long. Together, they find hope and peace that they all survived, even my dad, and they still have each other. 

While reading Westover’s memoir, Educated, I felt a sense of camaraderie with her. Her story deeply resonated with me and the stories of my family. 

To the skeptics, I say, please listen. Yes, the intensity of the human experience can often seem unbelievable, but you can’t make this stuff up. 

Listening to each other’s stories can bring us all together as individuals, families and communities. 

I challenge you to read Educated and also to go talk to your neighbors, coworkers, friends. Ask questions, listen to their stories. In sharing our stories, we realize how much we have in common.

Aaron Loeffelbein is a branch group manager at North Central Regional Library and lives in Ephrata with his cat, Isadora.

Aaron Loeffelbein

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  1. Barbara Walters says:

    Thank you for sharing your story with us Aaron. You are correct, listening (or in this case reading) each others stories allow us to be more empathetic towards one another.

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