July 27, 2017, Evanston RoundTable
There is a big story out there that most people don’t know—a story that is exciting, mysterious, deeply important, and profoundly life-altering. That story is your parents’ lives.
Oh sure, everyone has heard the major plot points and the colorful anecdotes. But the really critical details and genuine arc of their lives—not so much.
So here is a bold suggestion: interview your parents!
Of course I don’t mean just talk to them. No, it needs to be a proper interview, thoughtfully organized and taped for posterity. Because believe me, as dull as you might think they are now, at one time your parents were wild and impetuous—just like you. And some day, when they are gone, those wild and impetuous stories will be precious to you.
It is something I wish I had done. Family lore has it my father told his high school principal, six weeks before he was supposed to graduate, that the man “wasn’t fit to be the janitor.” And that he taught George Gershwin to play golf. My oldest brother knew a little about the latter story. My dad reported to him that George had a terrible temper on the course. My dad did too, so the two of them must have made quite a sight walking the course, shanking their shots, and wrapping their wooden-shafted clubs around the trees.
But the point is, I don’t know. Why did he tell off the principal? Is that why he didn’t graduate? How did he know the Gershwins? What was George really like?
My mom was born in South Africa. Her parents lived in Johannesburg before moving to Chicago. What was it like in Africa? Why didn’t they go straight to America from Russia?
It galls me that I didn’t ask those questions when my parents were around. I guess it didn’t seem important at the time. Now it seems critical, precious information that I will never have.
And it’s so easy to capture. All you need is a tape player (the one on your phone will do) or better yet, a video camera, and a set of questions.
The questions are obvious. Ask your parents what they remember of their childhood, their friends, and their parents. What were their school years like? Their work? How did they meet? Was it love at first sight? How about courtship? Family life?
Follow up on interesting sidelights. If you discover your mom did volunteer work in Africa or your dad served in the military, pursue those leads!
For more help on questions, check out StoryCorps. Just click on “Participate” and “Great Questions.” As their website says, “every story matters and every voice counts.”
The point is not just that these stories are important to capture for posterity. It’s that their story is your story, because your parents are so much a part of your life.