My parents were both engaging storytellers.
But while they loved to gab on and on in great detail about their lives before us kids came along (and ruined it or blessed it, depending on the circumstances of why we were hearing a story in the first place), they weren’t very interested in putting those stories into any permanent form.
One year—Dad was probably around 80 years old—I gave him a mini tape recorder and lots of tapes so he could talk and record to his heart’s content. My dad was both chatty and a gadget guy and I just knew this was the perfect gift! Except Dad never used even one tape. I could kick myself for not sitting down with Dad and the tape recorder running while he shared memories that made me smile and sometimes, cry.
And Mom, the English major? She was a great one for sending notes but try to get that woman to write down anything longer and you were asking for trouble. But oh, how I wish I’d gone to the trouble!
Now it’s too late, at least when it comes to my parents. But there’s still hope for me, and for you, too, for your kids and grandkids, because…wait for it… we’re writers.
Yep, that’s what we do, even if 2020 hasn’t exactly been a bonanza year for us putting words to page. But maybe for this holiday season, we can put someone else’s words on the page. We can give the gift of writing to a loved one.
All we need is a bit of time and a little effort.
When my daughter was in fifth grade, her teacher gave the class a Social Studies assignment: ask your grandparents about the Depression. It was perfect timing as lots of grandparents were in their 70s and well-remembered those lean years in a way that textbooks couldn’t bring to life. But it wasn’t just a simple assignment; she’d given the students specific questions to ask, and I’d forgotten all about that project until last year when my daughter took all the tapes from our video recorder and transferred them to DVDs.
On Christmas morning, I watched Dad, sitting on the couch, telling my daughter stories about the Depression that I’d never heard. (Naturally, I was in the kitchen during this homework project, fixing a meal. You can hear me in the background, talking to my mom. She occasionally added something, off camera. Mom wasn’t big on being videotaped.) I was absolutely transfixed, twenty years later, watching that video and listening to my dad’s responses.
It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Now, it may not be possible to do in-person video interviews like that but it could be fun to have a Zoom interview session. I think the trick to getting lots of great stories is to ask unusual and leading questions. Pretend you’re doing research for your next big project.
Because you really can’t get any bigger project than writing down a loved one’s stories, right? And take it from the daughter who knows better now. It’ll be worth every minute.
~ Cathy C. Hall (who's only two in the above pic with my parents and two brothers. The third brother had yet to come along. But I'm wishing all my family a happy Thanksgiving, and the best to your family, too!)