When my friend and I couldn’t get a table at Junior’s, we sat at the counter. Of course sitting at the counter means having lunch with the stranger next to you.
The man beside me looked about 75, and I couldn’t help but notice him because he was flirting so loudly with the waitresses.
“Oh Sam, cut it out,” one of them said, laughing as she hurried by.
Then Sam started talking to me. Before my matzah ball soup arrived, he had told me about his childhood in Poland, his parents’ clothing business and about being sent, at 14, to a concentration camp, from which he escaped within 24 hours.
Then Sam went on to give a detailed account of surviving the rest of the war, of his three marriages and of his six grandchildren.
Everyone has a story. But not many people get a chance to tell that story. Not everyone is like Sam, who probably tells his stories regularly and with great enthusiasm at the lunch counter.
Whether someone was born in Poland or Boyle Heights, whether he fought in World War I or survived the Great Depression, whether she is a millionaire or barely making ends meet — everyone has a story to tell.
Unfortunately, the majority of our older relatives take their stories with them when they die. This is a huge loss — especially for their descendants.
One of my friends’ daughters recently lamented this fact: “I wish I knew how my grandparents ended up in Mexico, or how they met. Or what their parents did for a living. We don’t know anything about their lives or their past. It’s really frustrating and sad.”
The truth is, we really do know more about ourselves when we understand our ancestors and our heritage.
But we have so many logical reasons that these stories aren’t heard or preserved.
“We kept meaning to ask Bubbe about her childhood in Europe. But both of us are so pressed for time with work, the kids, soccer games and temple committees that we just never got around to it.”
“I bought my father a very simple tape recorder so he could record his memories and stories. Then we bought him a family history book to fill in. But he wouldn’t do either one, and now his memories are fading.”
Are you fortunate enough to still have a chance to save your parents’ or grandparents’ stories?
Yes, we really are busy. Maybe our family elders don’t like talking about themselves. Maybe they repeat the same story over and over again and it’s grown old. Possibly they’re worried that you will be bored because they know they’ve told the same story over and over again.
But those same old stories are probably the ones their great-great-grandkids will wish they knew.
How to Get Started
1. Recognize your elder’s legacy as precious.
Imagine 20 years from now that your own grandchildren are asking you questions that you can’t answer.
2. Extend an invitation.
It might feel awkward, but it’s not that difficult to ask, “Would you be willing to sit down and talk about your life? We want to record your stories and memories.”
3. Be curious.
I can assure you there are things you don’t know about your older relatives’ lives and experiences.
4. Make a commitment.
This is like anything else that needs to get done. It has to be scheduled. Whether it’s for two hours or a whole day, commit to doing this. Why? Because they will feel honored and appreciated. (And because you will regret it if you don’t.) Turn off your cell phone during this time, and make sure there will be no distractions.
5. Create a list of questions.
Involve your children, siblings and other family members or friends. What do they want to know about the family’s history and about the “star” of the interview?
You probably already know this, but most questions should start with: who, what, where, when and why.
Brainstorm without censoring, unless you truly know that a topic is too upsetting to ask about.
As an oral historian, I have found that many Holocaust survivors don’t talk about their experiences with their family because they don’t want to upset their children. And their children? They don’t ask questions — even though they are interested — because they don’t want to upset their parents.
In brainstorming and coming up with questions, first think in terms of different generations:
Then think in terms of the different phases of someone’s life:
- School years, adolescence
- Young adulthood
- Senior years.
Then consider different aspects of most people’s lives:
- Family relationships/personalities
- Traditions/religious life
- The times/eras,
6. Practice patience during the interview.
Let them wander wherever their memory takes them. Some great stories emerge when this happens. Don’t interrupt.
7. Be quiet.
This is not a “conversation” where you do a lot of talking, judging or expressing your own point of view. This is a time to listen. Yes, you will ask questions, but if you ask them in the open-ended way and are really willing to listen, the storyteller will be more likely to talk ... and talk.
8. Acknowledge their life and experiences.
This will happen just by you showing your sincere interest.
9. Be prepared for emotions.
Most older people that I interview cry when they talk about their deceased parents, especially their mother. Men are usually surprised that they cry, but as a psychotherapist, I’m not. Tears are OK. Don’t rush in to stop the crying. You might hold their hand, or just say, “It’s OK.” The chance to reminisce is healing, and you will be allowing this process by your caring and listening.
10. Savor the time.
If you’ve committed to two hours, then stick to that and don’t rush the time. Whether an older relative is 55 or 105, we never know how much time we have left with our loved ones. Be grateful that you’ve had the chance to share this experience with them. n
Ellie Kahn is an oral historian in Van Nuys. Visit her company, Living Legacies, online at livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.