Times Past: Conversations

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

May 27, 2018

By Charli Mills, Generation X, Rural US

Television killed the conversation. That’s how I think of “family” dinners growing up. As an only child in rural northern California, my parents didn’t converse at dinner. Instead, my mother prepared the meal on tv trays, and we watch Laverne & Shirley, MASH, or Benny Hill — whatever the three networks televised between 6 and 7 pm.

Conversations happened elsewhere and involved other people. Often, late at night after a search-and-rescue call (my father was a volunteer) several deputies and other volunteers would converse around the kitchen table we never used for dinner. From my bedroom, I could hear the adults talk, and some of the harrowing stories they’d tell.

Coming from a story-telling culture, I grew up listening. Even now, I consider myself to be a story-catcher. However, I never really learned the art of conversation among non-story-tellers. I always enjoy meeting other story-tellers because we swap stories in a dynamic of your story/my story give and take. I’ve noticed that as more and more screens dominate our lives, we tell fewer stories and have less time for conversation.

When I met the Hub, I spent that first evening with him and his friends, listening to their stories. We laughed, and the camaraderie shared through stories enveloped us all that night.  Often, I judge the quality of stories told as to whether or not I’m going to connect with this person. I liked his stories, a lot! Over 30 years, we’ve made our own stories.

And I think that’s what I miss, our narrative sharing, our personal conversations. The Hub suffers from a diminished focus. He tests in the one percentile, meaning 99 percent of his peers can out-focus him. One way he compensates is to tell remembered stories — it’s like living in the past.

Conversation is awkward because he can only follow so far. New stories get mixed up because he doesn’t get the details right. By the third detail of a story I’m trying to share with him, he’s gone elsewhere. Focus leaves, zooming in an out on unrelated information, and I feel unheard.  I also feel like he has nothing to new to say. It’s a frustrating place to be, especially when his memory is actually sharp.

He remembers, but focuses on the past I want to get beyond. He can’t focus on the future, and planning causes anxiety because he can’t do it. It’s almost like being time travelers who can’t share the moment, always somewhere different on the timeline of life. And the Hub is migrating toward a different screen. He plays Solitaire because it helps reset his brain after an anxious episode.

Conversations seem to get sucked into the vortex of screens in modern times. Give me a good campfire, and people willing to sit around it and tell stories and dream of the future.

This post is in response to Irene Waters’ Time Past memoir prompt and reflection on generation and geo-location. Leave a reply or link to it on her current post at Conversation Time.

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  1. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Oh, Charli. I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope you are able to get some help on that front.
    I am considering your distinction between conversation and story exchange, or the differences in conversing with non story tellers and story tellers.

    • Charli Mills

      Ah, loss of conversation — we try to have a sense of humor about it. 🙂 But it does hurt the heart. Not his! He’s having a blast!

      Yes, this exercise Irene set me to made me also consider my own conversational inclinations. Storytellers populate my tribe, for certain!

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        Mighta mentioned before a book called the Storytelling Animal. I think I passed it along to someone, too bad I’d read it again.
        Stories are our basic template; literature/literacy started around a fire, it’s why parables, fables, fairy tales, etc. are still remembered and retold and resonate across eras and generations and cultures. Conversation might be more first person narrow-tive, less universal and encompassing. (More self interest and agendized) Storytellers know that their listeners have a part in the story too ,in its interpretation and application. And revision.

        Hey, there are stories of couples who have been together 50 years and never had a conversation or healthy story exchange. Tragedy. (Maybe there are, we could make one up) And this time traveling snafu must be extremely trying. The fire is always burning at your Ranch, thank goodness.

      • Charli Mills

        I’m finding that I can tolerate the old stories better when I converse new ones with others, so it is a group endeavor. Yes, we are hardwired for stories! At least I have what Shakespear says is the better.

  2. TanGental

    How poignant and harsh is that loss. I like the distinction between conversation and story telling. And I think I tend to the former but can easily nestle in the latter give The right environment.

    • Charli Mills

      It’s an unfair erosion, and at some point, I hope to stop moping and enjoy the shoreline until the ocean takes it away.

      • TanGental

        That’s such a lovely analogy until you realise what it means. I guess it explains why you’re always looking for something in amongst those rocks that get left behind as the water recedes.

      • Charli Mills

        There are gifts in every shoreline. Sometimes when we think it’s a loss, we have only to shift our attention to what we gain. Things I ponder as I hunt rocks!

  3. Jules


    We’ve had too many family members in and still in service. There are some stories they will not tell. Kind of like if you are a firefighter and belong to an extended family – you think those outside your group would not understand the trials or tales.

    Those who suffer the most heart ache seem to want to share it the least. My FIL was like that. He never said a bad word about his WWII experiences. But one could see the pain in his eyes.

    Your lack of conversation reminded me of those I also did not have when growing up – the adults never thought I would understand. With shutting me out – I in turn would not, could not trust them.

    I hope your hubby can move beyond his pain to step into the future with you.
    Sometimes I think it could be a defensive switch in the brain. Keep that humor – I think that is what helped my FIL and MIL make it beyond their 50 year mark.

    • Charli Mills

      It must be similar for firemen, as I think they refer to each other as brothers (and sisters), too. Part of it is a defense mechanism, but we are also learning about the impact of repetitive jumping and repelling on the brain (like football players). The military started to pay better attention because TBI is a hallmark of the Iraq/Afganistan conflicts. Then the NFL started to do post-mortem examinations on professional football players and recorded chronic traumatic encephalopathy CTE. Paratroopers are among the most susceptible. We have to adjust to a new reality. At least we still can laugh!

      • Jules

        Laughing is healing. May we continue to laugh with each other. Hugs, Jules…
        Oh, it may not really belong here but for another prompt I did a short version of the one vet 99 vet story for my FIL. So you can edit if you wish:

        homing in
        (respectfully for my FIL)

        memories held in
        a box… and his own war chest
        …opened after death

        in his mind every day was
        a world war since he came home

        he opened his heart
        to his living family
        that would be… enough


        I also have a fiction story about Memorial Day combining three prompts called “The Upside of the Downside”

        May we all continue to remember those who are no longer with us as well as those who still serve, even though there is a different holiday for that/them.

      • Charli Mills

        Thank you for remembering those who have served in your writing, Jules. It’s curious to know the contents of the chest but not the stories behind them.

  4. Colline

    My husband and I agreed on one thing when we married – to have dinner around the table instead of in front of the tv. Nineteen years later we are still having conversations with our children around the table.

    • Charli Mills

      Good call, Colline! You must have a lively and engaged dinner table.

  5. oneletterup

    Yes, yes and yes – (that’s the condensed version of my comment).
    I also grew up listening. Perched on the stairs, hidden from view, trying to decipher what those grownups were talking about. My parents’ cocktail parties were loud and buzzing with laughter, fueled by…well…cocktails — so I just knew there were exciting conversations going on. Love the term story-catcher. Random shoppers approach me in the grocery store and share an experience, an aggravation or just an observation. It happens almost every trip. I am no longer surprised. And…the shift in storytelling and conversation after decades together? An uneasy mystery.

    • Charli Mills

      Ha! I do believe others can tell a story-catcher, and often unload, or maybe a story-catcher is just good at listening. How fun to train with your parents’ cocktail parties!

  6. calmkate

    Sorry for your loss Charli … story telling is very new to me, I’m very much into conversation with communication being essential to my profession. But I hope you still consider me a friend 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Of, course, Kate! Thank you. Friendship is a great gift. 🙂

      • calmkate

        and you have mine 🙂

  7. Annecdotist

    Charli, you’ve made a beautiful story the conversations you’ve had and the stories you’ve missed. Hope you are enjoying the conversation this poignant post has elicited.

    • Charli Mills

      I always enjoy the conversations that ensue, Anne. Thank you.

  8. Norah

    I grew up with boisterous conversations around a dinner table. Being one of ten, and with so many talking, it was hard to find my voice. I tended to tune out, and escape into my own thoughts, and read when I could, so I guess I never learned to be a story-catcher like you. It is hard work now to make the stories come. Being (considerably) older than you, we didn’t have the television to distract the noisy tit-for-tat as each vied for attention that was never forthcoming. What I realise now, is the importance of those conversations to not only create the stories at the time but to seal them as memories for future retellings and re-creations.
    I’m so sorry that your Hub has the difficulty with focus. I like that you seek the positives in the situation rather than the negatives, though I understand it must be difficult at times, for all of you. It must be hard to maintain a relationship when those very things that helped form the attachment slip away. Proper care and support is essential.

    • Charli Mills

      We had such polar opposites in terms of crowd noise growing up, Norah! You being one f ten and me being one of one. And we are (somewhat) different in age… I’ve known people who slip out of the crowd and into their own minds. I think you fostered much imagination and creativity that way. Isn’t interesting how we can come from such diverse backgrounds and still play together on the page! I think that’s what makes the weekly flash fiction here so rich. And supports why we need diversity in literary art. As for the current conversations on the homefront, they are evolving.

      • Norah

        The richness of diverse conversations – that’s what it’s all about – strengthening understanding, acceptance and empathy. The literary arts make a great contribution.

  9. Chelsea Owens

    You ARE a wonderful storyteller. Look how many of us feel inclined to respond with our own now. 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Ah, it really is like sitting around a campfire with all of you, Chelsea!

  10. Lemuel

    I like your take on storytelling and what can go haywire. Stories told and stories heard are like the essentials for life (food, etc.) and relate to those of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs idea (belonging, etc.) Heck, we knew those concepts by direct application. Ghost stories; who goes first? Pass the marshmallows please.

    • Charli Mills

      (passing the marshmallows)…Yes! Storytelling is at that basic level, food for the mind, heart, and soul. I do remember the ghost stories from sleepovers. Thanks for reminding me!

  11. dgkaye

    Charli, your story was disheartening, yet beautifully told. And I know what you mean about relating to other storytellers. Those are magical moments when we make connections like that. Stay strong <3

    • Charli Mills

      Connectivity is important, especially to story-tellers looking for those junctions. Thank you, Debby!

      • dgkaye

        My pleasure. 🙂

  12. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Charli my heart went out to you with this post and I’m glad you are surrounded by those you love and those you can both tell stories to and catch them from them. It must have been very difficult as you were travelling and alone with differing focus needs. At least being aware of the problem is the start of being able to examine options for coping/managing/surviving the problem. Sending big hugs from across the ocean.

    • Charli Mills

      Awareness is good, Irene. Not knowing or understanding what was going on was both frustrating and scary. But that leg of the journey is over. I feel much less isolated here and appreciate having loved ones near. Thanks for your cross-ocean hugs! Sending more back to you!

  13. robbiesinspiration

    I can imagine that this is very hard for you, Charli. Is it a result of PTSD and his injuries or is there another cause?

    • Charli Mills

      We’ve been in the process of unraveling it all and getting paperwork compiled (and evidence collected, which is emotionally draining) to get his head screened.

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