Sunday, November 29, 2009

Oral Histories

The day after Thanksgiving wasn't just Black Friday. It was also the National Day Of Listening, an effort to get families to preserve a little bit of their history. The organizers suggest setting aside an hour to record a conversation with someone important to you -- a family member, a teacher, a friend, etc.

Though we've passed the designated day, the idea works any time. I recommend it because I've done it.

About 20 years ago, long before the advent of the Flip camera and other easy-to-use camcorders, I rented some video equipment (camera, lights, microphones) and set them up in my parents' living room. Then I had my mother and father sit on the couch and talk about their remarkable lives.

We started in their early years -- where they grew up, what they did as children, what their neighborhoods were like, where they went to school, and who their friends were. Then my father talked about his time in the Army in World War II, and my mother opened up about what life was like for single women back home with so few men around.

We recorded ten hours over two days as they told stories about how they met, the jobs they'd had, the places they'd traveled to, their mutual love of music and movies, the social movements they'd been part of, and what it was like to raise me and my brother.

I'm particularly glad I undertook the project because my father got sick a few years later and began a long, slow descent that eventually took his life. He knew his granddaughter for her first three years, but she never really got to know the man he was. I'm happy that my mother is still around and that they have a warm, close relationship, but those recorded hours of insight into my parents will help to keep their memories alive for her -- and for me -- for many years to come.

I urge you to do the same with your parents while they're still around.