When asked what kind of book I wrote, I often get the same response: “Oh how wonderful. I wish I had sat down with my…(grandmother, grandfather, great-aunt, cousin, you-fill-in-the-blank). They really had an exciting life. They were bootleggers, smugglers, coal miners, suffragettes, steel workers, lumber barons, led a swing band, sang with Benny Goodman.” Clearly you can fill in the blanks here too, and I’m getting carried away!
I was explaining to a man, whom I had just met at a bar (with my husband!), how I sat down with my father-in-law and recorded everything he said and then I wrote it down. Interesting concept! The man I was speaking to sat back on his bar stool pondering what I had said. Then he went on to tell me how his father had been in World War One and, “Wait World War One?” I interrupted, “Don’t you mean Two? How old was your father anyway!?”
“Nope,” he said, “it was the First World War. My father was sixty-five when I was born and I’m in my early fifties now.” So that pretty much explained it. He went on to express regret that he hadn’t talked to his father about his past, but he said, “I was only eighteen at the time and really stupid.” He wasn’t thinking about the past or his connections to it back then. Also he confided that he and his father didn’t get along very well.
Then he told me something even more astounding. When his father got up in years and was living in an assisted care facility, he would go visit him. Every time he went his father expressed anger at the other old guys in the place. He called them all…well, something not very complimentary. His father said, “All these guys in here are all jerks! But that guy,” he pointed a shaky finger at a fellow who looked about a hundred years old, “that one guy is all right.” He was apparently referring to one of the gentlemen in the facility who had actually served in the Spanish American War.
Not really familiar with this war (I know, shame on me) I was incredulous as first. “Wasn’t that like in the 1800s?! Just how old was the guy anyway?” I said.
To my chagrin, he explained the Spanish War was in the Teddy Roosevelt time period, nearer the 1900s. Actually, with a little bit of research I discovered it was a conflict in 1898 between Spain and the United States. You can read about it here if you like. Regardless, he had this golden opportunity to talk with a veteran of the Spanish American War, but being young and not thinking about all that old stuff he let it go. I could tell not investigating further must have gnawed at him over the years because he remembered it vividly. Coincidentally, he was retired from the military and working as a detective in Wisconsin, where he was born and raised.
But this underscores my point. How many opportunities have we passed up to learn about our past, our personal history? Even if your family hasn’t done anything newsworthy, it’s your connection to past events. Even if you sit down with Grandma and listen to how life used to be, it is certainly different from how life is today! There is a lot to be gleaned from our relatives, but few of us are really listening. That we never took the opportunity to talk to them while we had it will come back to haunt us. Once they’re gone, that link is gone, and we can’t get it back again. And we might miss something vital. But we won’t find out until we try.
A good friend recently told me that after reading my book THE ALTERED I, she was inspired to talk to her father. She made an appointment with him, traveled to see him, and without distractions, talked with him for two days about his past, his experiences, and his reflections. Wow, I was humbled to hear it. But glad she acted on her wish to connect with her father after so many years.
What do you think? Is listening to our older relatives important? Have you done it? What did you find out? I would love to know! Please share in the comments section.