Why Learning the Mundane Details of Someone’s Life Fosters Attachment

My father-in-law visited recently. It has been a long separation – nearly two years – due to COVID. I try to keep everyone engaged through lengthy family updates and accompanying pictures. But after two years of Skype calls and e-mails, we all know it’s just not the same.

His visit included some fun adventures, but what he seemed to enjoy most of all was getting a sense of our daily routines.

He learned the route we take when we walk to school each morning. He saw the small shelf in the dining room where I store our current reading selections. He familiarized himself with our kitchen cupboards – learning where to find the cutlery and his favourite coffee mug. He knew where to find light switches in the dark and grew accustomed to how we load our dishwasher. He learned where we stored basketballs and soccer balls (and never had any trouble finding willing companions for a pick-up game).

He took pictures the morning he left for home – one of us all geared up for the walk to school, another of me reading to the kids while they ate breakfast. He took one of the guest room, his home for two weeks. He snapped another of the outside of our house before it gets a facelift. All unremarkable, mundane things. Yet knowing the intricacies of these small things feels big.

Knowing where someone stores their vegetable peeler might just make you feel more connected than having a long conversation over coffee.

It reminds me of Gretchen Rubin’s suggestion to take pictures of usual things:

Instead of taking photos of unusual sights, take a photo of the most usual sights. In the future, you’ll be a lot more interested in seeing a photo of your dorm-room closet or your laundromat than seeing a photo of the Louvre.

Gretchen Rubin

I’d love to have a photo of my closet from university days – I know it was tiny and didn’t even have a door, just a small curtain pulled across it (which, for the life of me, I frustratingly can’t remember the colour of…and this haunts me).

My father-in-law came to the bus stop each day. He learned the driveway where I wait, the names of the friends that would tumble out alongside his grandkids; he now knows, to the minute, when the bus arrives. He also joined us on our daily commute to school morning after morning. He said hello to the crossing guard and saw the giant concrete pillar my son likes to climb up every morning.

Sure, I describe a lot of things in my family update e-mails (they are shockingly thorough). But reading about the route to school and actually walking it are two very different things.

14 thoughts on “Why Learning the Mundane Details of Someone’s Life Fosters Attachment”

  1. How nice to have your FIL visit for 2 weeks! When you come for that long, you can really become part of the fabric of daily life. We have never hosted a family member for more than a weekend. My parents longest stay was 4 days last December when they came to watch our son when we had baby #2. They are total homebodies and do not like to be away from home so we’ll never have them for more than a couple of days most likely. Our house is set up really well to host them, though, as we have a guest suite with a bathroom in the basement. So they have total and complete privacy! Maybe some day one of my nieces or nephews will come to stay! I remember going to stay at my aunt and uncle’s house for a week. My aunt was traveling so I kind of watched their daughter, who was probably 5 years younger than me, so not all that much younger? But I kept her company while my uncle worked.

    1. I tend to get very overwhelmed with people in my space. I just always feel on edge, even with close family. I’m an introvert, so I think just knowing there is someone else in the house makes me feel overstimulated even if they don’t need me (but I know they *might* need me).
      That said, this visit with my FIL was so seamless. He was perfectly independent and carved out his own little space with the guest bedroom (downstairs) and accompanying bathroom. I was so busy with onboarding into a new working role, I didn’t have the time to feel obligated to fill all the spaces in his schedule which was a good thing! I visited when I could, but then also felt free to work when I needed to (also, we are generally hosting people from my side of the family, and I think I feel extra pressure to entertain guests that are direct blood relatives – like they’re more my responsibility somehow)?

      Either way, I overthink the company thing BUT do think I’m getting less stressed as the years go by – especially now that I’m not worried about babies waking people up in the middle of the night.

  2. this is so true. when you know details of other people’s life, you feel closer to them. And also, good reminder to record more of our daily mundane activities, they are mundane but that’s our real life, which is precious.

  3. Such good observations. I totally agree. I also recently heard Gretchen Rubin mention her “album of everyday things” or whatever she calls it, and had been thinking what a really great idea that is. Lately I’ve been working on organizing/ condensing old photos, and I have noticed that the ones that are the most fun to look back on are of just random things. I’m being careful to not just delete photos that “seem” insignificant. Sometimes pictures that I took for some specific purpose in the moment (I don’t know, like a random pic of my newly organized linen closet just to text my mom- lol!!) are actually really nice to look back on. Or I have pictures of some clothing items of the boys that I took to post online to sell- but I kind of want to keep those pictures! I also tend to take lots of pictures of my house around holidays, so I can capture exactly where I put various decorations (to look back on the next year so it’s easier.) Definitely happy to have those, too. And pictures of our yard! It’s fun to look back on what trees or plants were like years ago, etc. I also love looking back on the mundane things I’ve been recording in my journal. Really wish I had kept a “highlight journal” like I do now YEARS ago! Especially from the time the boys were little…darn!

    1. Um…newly organized linen closets sound like the best pictures ever! I love me a good cleaning session in a closet!

      The little things are the things that add up to make life unique and special, but it can be hard to appreciate them or to recognize them (like what details am I going to want to have a record of down the road).

      It feels like too much right now, but those apps that allow you to record 1 second of video from every day and then stitches it all together does sound sooo cool.

      I do photobooks and monthly updates and that’s about where I have to leave it now, but I definitely do end up deleting some pictures that I regret. Overall, though, I think I have a lot MORE everyday memories and keepsakes because of having a smartphone. Having a phone in my pocket just really spurs me on to take pictures of little things (one of my favourites is a picture of my son – pre-pandemic – pushing around a “Shopper-in-training” mini cart at a local grocery store. He’s so little and was so proud of steering this tiny cart around the store. And I would never have had a camera on that moment a decade ago, but absolutely cherish that picture and how it froze that moment in time. He’s old enough to push a full-sized cart now + they got rid of them because of COVID. I’m so glad I managed to capture that memory, or I’d likely have forgotten about the fun of that random Tuesday morning shopping trip…

  4. I always think about this and I never do it. It would be so great to just have a photo of passing time in the halls or the parking lot from high school. The fashion and cars that were just normal back then would seem so retro now. I am going to do a small mini-series this month about my regular routine and workspaces and I hope that it will encourage me to take photos of every day things that someday, many years from now, won’t seem so every day.

    How fun that he could come for a nice long visit! It sounds like he had a great time and you were a great host.

    1. I love these types of posts! Always fun to have to look back on (and can be cool to really think through your routines now that you might not even fully recognize).

  5. Yes, yes, yes. My sister and I talk and text all the time, but there’s nothing spending time and participating in all the mundane daily activities. I realized that after I went to visit her a couple summers ago (and now I’m thinking I need to schedule another visit!). I totally agree with Gretchen’s idea of taking pictures of usual things. I’ve noticed that we tend to look at the background of old photos- not the subject- and are fascinated to remember the couch we used to have, or what was on the bookshelves.

    1. I love catching glimpses of my parents 1970’s-era couch in the background of childhood pictures. It had these huge brown flowers on a grey background and it makes me so nostalgic. Clothes, too – I’ll spot an old outfit and remember how much I liked it or who gave me what pieces. So many little things can trigger big memories.

  6. Oh, I relate to this so much…. I take a ton of pictures during the week (possibly of things that people would find mundane), but there’s still a lot of things I’ve never taken pictures of (and I clearly should).

    I love that you were able to host your FIL and that he was so independent and just fit himself into your daily routine. I am very close with my family and a few years ago, my parents visited for two weeks. We had a spare bedroom back then and it was wonderful to host them, to see my mom in the kitchen in the morning. It felt so “homey”. I haven’t seen my family in two years and hope I can see them soon and I will pay attention to the new little details in life.

    1. Mmm. Spontaneous, too. I was just talking with someone about how I really think (as much as it has some significant drawbacks) that having smartphone cameras really helps with this. I can snap a picture of my child when they randomly decide to climb a tree one day when we’re on walking through a park. Pictures are a huge trigger of memory for me, and I think when cameras were bigger and it was more labour intensive to access the prints, we missed capturing many of these sorts of memories. If I’d had a smartphone in university, I’m sure I would have captured a picture of my closet!

  7. I love this – particularly that he was integrated enough that you didn’t feel the need to be “on” for a guest in your home. I can totally relate. I keep such an odd schedule that it is really hard for me to host people. This is one reason a small one-bedroom apartment with no room for people to stay is perfect for me. (And there is a hotel across the street!)
    Integrating into someone else’s routine makes such a difference in how you see their life. I bet your kids will remember the bus stop walks, and the pick up games of basketball and soccer, more than they will remember the random big holidays. Those are the memories we carry forward. Running errands (I do this with my mom when I visit them), having coffee with my dad while he eats his breakfast… Those are the moments I’ll treasure, and I’m sure your FIL is treasuring his memories of his time with all of you. <3

    1. A hotel across the street sounds so convenient!
      It really is about the simple/mundane moments. I guess because it just feels like normal life and often that’s not something we get to share with many of our family and friends, ironically enough.

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