Penny For Your Thoughts: Who Will Tell Your Loved Ones’ Stories When They’re Gone?

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I usually spend one or both of the big winter holidays with family. These get-togethers, as beautiful as they are, come with fear and discomfort. Trying not to look dead-eyed, I answer loved ones’ questions about my career and what I’m doing with my life. But at some point, after I’ve survived two or three of those awkward conversations, I legitimately begin enjoying myself.

Suddenly, I’m no longer fake-smiling and going through the motions with folks. Suddenly, I’m not annoyed by how loudly the football game is blaring. Suddenly, I’m not sighing under my breath when my father can’t hear what I’m saying because my voice is competing with the sportscaster’s commentary every two minutes. Suddenly, the noisy TV room—where Daddy sits in his recliner chair surrounded by newspapers, half-opened mail, glaucoma eyedrops, and his weekly pill organizer—becomes a tableaux vivant, a living photo album through which I’m no longer mindlessly thumbing. Suddenly, I’m peeling back the protective plastic sheet to unstick a picture from its page and lifting the image to my eyes.

Suddenly, the occasion of togetherness comes alive.

Unless…is it the occasion that comes alive or do I come alive? Is it that I’m suddenly on—or is that I’m suddenly, completely in it?

Never mind the mechanics. Suffice it to say, there’s a moment at just about every holiday family gathering that feels like arriving at that first breathtaking passage in a novel when you’re suddenly sitting up in bed, and your eyes have lost the ability to gloss over words.

But in the real-life holiday narrative, when that oh, this is getting good beat hits, as delightful and electric as that moment is, I always get scared and think:

Oh God. What if this moment ends with me? What if the story ends here? What if ___isn’t with us next Christmas? No one else tells the story about the time that  ___ did ____ ! I certainly can’t tell the story with so much detail. I barely even know the details! Right, details. That’s what I need. OK, I’m gonna study this moment. I’m gonna learn every single detail about everything right now.

Then, there I am, wanting to memorize every family idiom as I hear it so that it will sound as inventive to someone else as it did to me, wanting to prolong the reverb in every note of laughter, wanting to memorize the stair-step ascension in every voice as it gets progressively happier—and all the while wanting to cry because my brain just isn’t the recording device that I want it to be. See, at 38 years old, I’ve learned to tackle family questions, everything from “Are you seeing anyone?” and “When are you going to get a real job?” to “If I were you, I’d ____,” but family stories are another beast. They unfold too quickly in real time, and I never feel like an expedient storykeeper.

When I spent the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving visiting my father in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, I was determined to come back with a story. Whenever I’m with my dad, who is 85, I worry about the day that I will think of him as a myth. When I’ll no longer hear him call politicians “jokers” or say “Let’s go see a man about a dog” before we leave a restaurant. As my dad inches toward 90, I’ve been fretting less about his mortality. When you grow up with an older father you often find yourself mourning him before he’s died, but I don’t worry so much about my father’s fate anymore. I do worry, however, what will happen to his stories.

About six or seven years ago, I interviewed my father about his life. Over a period of several days, I sat him down at his kitchen table, and I asked him questions about growing up in Alabama and serving in the Army. I still have the 10 mini-cassettes, each one with “Daddy” written on them, in a plastic baggie. One of these days, I’ll transcribe those conversations. In the meantime, I wanted to get more of my father on the record. Because stories are like that—even when you catch them once, you want to collect them again.

A couple times a week my dad takes a walk around the property of his modest three-bedroom house. So I joined him on these excursions, where he navigates the uneven terrain, stopping now and then to retrieve a handkerchief from the pocket of his polyester trousers. I walked beside him holding my iPhone with the video on and the camera turned on his thinning face. Instead of asking him to retell his life story, I asked him small questions, like “Is there anything about this house that reminds you of the house you grew up in?” or “What do you think the word ‘success’ means?” I recorded our conversations in three- or five-minute snippets. More than a few times, my dad and I both cried.

Years from now, if I have kids, and if my laptop holds up until then, I will show my babies these short videos of my daddy. I will say, “This is your grandfather. This is his face. This is his voice. This is the way he talked. This is the way he told a story.”

If you haven’t recorded any of your family members, I recommend that you do. Use the new StoryCorps app to interview your grandmother. Make a short video of your parents talking back and forth about what they’re going to watch on TV that night. Record an audio clip of your cousin talking ish over a domino game. If there are any voices that you can’t imagine never hearing again, bottle them up.

An survey from 2007 said many of us can’t name one of our great-grandparents and have never researched our family roots. But knowing where we come from isn’t just signing up for a DNA test on one of the genealogy sites. There are histories that we hear every day, especially this time of year, that will die with the loved ones who tell them.  There are stories that we’ll never be able to tell as well as they could, but we can at least try to collect them now, to preserve them while there’s still time. Knowing our ancestry isn’t only knowing the facts, it’s about capturing and sharing the “come alive” moments.

The phrase that I’m getting at here is: Being a witness. The other day I was reading a terrific essay about gratitude by Courtney E. Martin. She wrote that expressing gratitude at Thanksgiving is “not just about empty platitudes or forced dinner table exercises. It’s about marveling. It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do.”

Perhaps there’s no greater way to witness than aiming to be your loved ones’ storykeeper, ensuring that the storytellers whom you’ve known—Daddy, Mommy, Uncle, Auntie, Big Mama an’ ’em—don’t end with you.

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