My mountain man hangs his wet towels on the bed posts in spite of having two towel racks and two towel hooks in the bathroom. From the moment we moved in together, this little habit drove me crazy. Yet I decided to keep quiet. I chalked it up to years of bachelorhood and didn't want to be the nagging girlfriend. I decided I'd bring it up if he ever felt inclined to ask me if any of his habits annoyed me.
(He did ask me this once, as a way to bring up some of my annoying habits. But it still resulted in using his towel instead of taking mine from the towel rack. Since, you know... he'd left his on the bedpost.)
Only I'm not good at waiting.
One day I spilled the beans in some less than polite way and made it known that I hated wet towels on the end of the bed.
"We have perfectly good towel racks in the bathroom," I said.
"Well I grew up in a family of six kids, we didn't have that many towel racks," he said. Turned out his mother trained him to hang his towel on the bed.
We've had other moments like this in our relationship. When he's feeling feisty, for example, he likes to dance around the living room Mohammed. Otherwise a pacifist, he holds his fist in the air and says, "See this? This is Maryanne. And this is Betty Lou."
He acts tough and I role my eyes. One day, I finally asked him about it.
He proceeded to tell me a story about his great uncle Sam, an old man with deep Italian roots who talked in a raspy voice and called his own fist named Betty Lou (or maybe it was Mary Anne. I get them confused). Pretty soon, Great Uncle Same came to life in our living room, reenacted by his great nephew.
"Why I otta..."
As a boy, my boyfriend thought his great uncle was so funny that he imitated him all summer long--so much that his brothers christened his other fist Mary Anne (or was it Betty Lou?). Dancing around the living room was a long-time family joke, I just didn't know it.
I realized then that I make a lot of assumptions about what makes other people tick, and it keeps me from seeing the depth of their stories. And yet, isn't that my job as a writer? To dig beneath the surface and find out what's really going on? To create a little more understanding in the world?
I think it is, and I also think it can have far-reaching effects, even when we're talking about small things like towels and inside jokes.
In my own home it has created greater peace. Now when the mountain man dances around the living room, I think of Great Uncle Sam. And when his towel ends up on the bed post, I no longer mind. I imagine instead his childhood home and his mother and what it must have been like to raise six kids. I will never meet his mother or Sam because they're no longer living, but still they've found their way into my memory. The Mountain Man's story has become part of my story, too.