As Erma Bombeck famously stated in her "If I Had My Life To Live Over" essay, she said she would have "talked less and listened more."
Dear Erma, I wholeheartedly agree.
Yesterday my family and I had the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with my husbands 93 year old grandmother. The kids and I have only actually met her a handful of times, and usually as a part of a family reunion. So getting to talk to her, or more accurately, listen to her, was a rare occasion to get a glimpse into her life way back before World War II, before the invention of the television, and before she had six kids and a husband who left her shortly after the sixth one was born.
I came prepared with questions that I jotted down on the back of a receipt I found in my purse on the way over to her house. My husband did not know the answers to any of the questions and he was as fascinated as I was to learn about her experiences as a young girl in boarding school and how she spent her summers in her youth. Being of hearty English stock, she recalled how she persevered steadfastly and rather unemotionally after her mother left when she was 6 and confessed how she never really knew the woman who gave birth to her. She considers her stepmother her real mother and cherishes her 3 step siblings. While she couldn't remember specific activities they did together as children, she remembered fondly the fact that they always had chores to do on the farm and how no adults were concerned about how their kids or the neighbors' kids were being entertained. They were left to their own devices to figure out how to pass the time between school and work and there was virtually no supervision once a child could manage tasks on his or her own. She laughed at the memory of the neighbor boy peering in the window to watch their first tiny black and white television, and frowned with disdain remembering the "coming out" parties of her debutante acquaintances. She took us through her history of meeting Grandpa (my husband had never heard that story) of raising her kids on her own farm, of teaching special needs children and running horse camps after her children were grown (and finally retiring at age 70!) and of always having her door open for when a niece or nephew or grandchild needed a place to stay, even for an indefinite period of time. When I asked her when was her happiest time she grew pensive for a moment and didn't answer. After the pause I gently asked further, "Was it when you had your six children all around you in the house?" She remained silent for another minute, then looked up and replied, "Yes. Yes I think it was." I'm quite sure no one had ever asked her that question in 93 years.
As she talked for a good 75 minutes or so, my teenage kids were enraptured. There was no checking of phones or talking among themselves or looking bored. They added their own questions and comments to her stories, and laughed along when she told of a funny instance that had, until then, been long since forgotten. It was, quite simply, a magical time spent together, and one that we are all incredibly grateful and honored to have had experienced.
I asked similar questions to 2 great aunts from my father's side many years ago, shortly before they passed away. It was amazing to get a real picture of these quiet, polite, and very reserved old ladies whooping it up in the South, playing the part of Scarlett O'Hara in the early part of the twentieth century, long before their hair turned white. Their eyes sparkled and their voices came alive as they told us all about the nicknames in the family, the weekly dances and courting rituals, and of course, the rampant racism that wasn't recognized as such in the innocence of their youth. After those special moments we all saw them as real people, and no longer just as the twice-older generation with whom we had nothing in common and nothing similar to which we could relate.
Everybody has a story. Every person who has ever walked on the Earth has had experiences unique to them, but are also a part of a shared experience called humanity. Everyone has hopes and expectations, has experienced love in some form or another, and has suffered loss, which I believe is the great unifier. It can be fun and extremely rewarding to get to know the stories and backgrounds of the people that you know by name but don't really know as fellow human beings; especially those with whom you have a presumption that you're too different to have a connection with besides familially.
So I would encourage you, when you have the chance, sit down with an elderly relative or friend of the family and ask them about their life. Take them back to what will most likely be a simpler time when they had their life in front of them instead of behind. They will most likely be delighted to share their life stories with you, and undoubtedly thrilled that someone took the time to ask. Unfortunately it seems that senior citizenship is not recognized or respected in American culture and often the elders in our society are pushed off to the side and even ignored when the younger people are around. Wouldn't it be nice to change that within your own circle?
Here is a list of questions to get you started:
1. Where did you go to elementary school? What was the culture there? What were the disciplinary actions doled out by the teachers?
2. What did you do for fun as a family, before television and computers? Did your family have a radio that they listened to nightly?
3. What were some of your favorite meals cooked by your mother? What did she do while you were in school?
4. Did you have a secret hideout like a tree or a cave nearby? Who were your friends and what kind of games did you play?
5. What was your first job? Do you remember what you got paid?
6. How did you meet Grandpa/Grandma? Were you ever in love before you met him or her? How long did you date before getting engaged/married? May we see your wedding photos?
7. What were your career goals? Were you encouraged to follow your aspirations as a young adult?
8. What was the political climate like when you were young? Was there racism or prejudice in the town where you grew up? If so, which groups of people were targets?
9. What was your favorite toy as a child? Do you remember who gave it to you or where you got it?
10. What was your favorite subject in school?
11. What was the make of your first car?
12. Did you have a pet growing up? What was its name?
13. What were birthday parties like when you were young?
14. What was your favorite book growing up?
15. What did you wear to go to school?
16. Do you remember when you first got a television? A record player/phonograph?
17. Do you remember how much a loaf of bread cost when you were young? How about a chocolate bar? A soda at the soda fountain?
18. What did you worry about when you were younger? Did you have to participate in things like air raid drills?
19. Did you know your own grandparents?
20. When was the happiest time in your life?
Please feel free to add your own questions and let the conversation go off on as many tangents as the speaker wants. I would also suggest keeping water or another beverage handy if the person isn't used to talking so much at one time. You can also record the conversation to play for other relatives who might be interested. We didn't record this conversation because I felt that Grandma wouldn't feel as comfortable speaking freely if she was being recorded, but if your person is up for it, it would be a wonderful keepsake to pass along to future generations (assuming of course they will have the correct technology to play the recording 😉)
All this to say, while we still have our precious elders with us, we should try to form a connection with them before they and their stories are gone forever. Don't forget, you came from somewhere - we all did - and it is only through the the accomplishments and daily living of the people who came before us that led us to where we are today. Find out about them. Take the time to engage and question and listen to the fascinating stories about what came before you. Hopefully the young ones of the future will do the same with us.