Let them talk before they’re gone

In the winter of 2013, I attended the funeral of an aunt at an Alpine lake where she had spent much of her life and her final years. As the coffin was lowered into the frozen ground, I stood next to my godfather and whispered an idea to him.

Born in 1924, my godfather had been sent as a German pioneer to Italy to blow up roads and bridges as the Germans retreated and the Allies advanced, spending most of his time behind enemy tank lines, usually alone. He was captured by the British, spent several years in prisoner camps in Egypt and Libya, then returned emaciated to the bombed rubble of occupied Germany in 1948. He met another of my aunts (the sister of the one we buried in 2013), fell in love and wooed her. He married her in 1953, and thus entered my family, which at that time centered around Uncle Lulu (Ludwig Erhard).

My godfather and my aunt tried to have children. They bore six sons in the next decade or so, but each was born somewhat prematurely. Today, these cousins of mine would live. In postwar Germany, they died. After years of this, my aunt committed suicide in 1968. My godfather found her floating in their swimming pool. She had sedated herself and jumped in.

My godfather fell apart, but eventually picked himself up again, perhaps with the psychological skills he had learned as a pioneer. He learned to fly small planes, because somebody had told him it’s a way to keep the mind still (or otherwise crash). In time he remarried, had two more children, eventually met a different woman, and so forth.

So we watched the coffin go down and I said something like: “Your generation should talk to my generation before your stories are lost. Into a microphone. No judgment, no parameters, just your memories, good and bad, before they’re gone.”

After the funeral I soon forgot about the little conversation. But my godfather remembered. Half a year later, he called and said: “Come down” (to Munich) and bring the microphone.

I was less enthusiastic at first. I had said that at the funeral as one says these things, not expecting to be called on them, and now it was extremely inconvenient in my middle-aged life. But at some point, I remembered why I had whispered my “offer” in the first place. So I spent a long afternoon and evening in his small study amid papers and family photos. And he talked.

Such conversations can fail. I don’t think children or grandchildren can interview their parents or grandparents, for example. The bond is too intimate, and the observer becomes part of the observation. The older person might feel at important moments that he or she is being judged, and there must be absolutely none of that for any of it to be interesting. Having a stranger do the interview is also unlikely to work. There must be some intimacy to get the right stuff out of the person, to let them speak in their own idiom and have things be understood.

I now have many hours of rough, rambling conversation on my computer, unstructured as all human communication is. I have discovered Garage Band and am cutting these hours to condense and arrange the segments, bringing them into an order so that the stories become intelligible. To do so is not to waste time but to enter another one. It puts a lot of things in perspective. I recommend it.

54 thoughts on “Let them talk before they’re gone

  1. My father was born in 1900 and died in 1986.

    About six months before he died, blind and ill, he struggled, on his own, to make tapes of memories of the persecution of Germans in London during WW1, of the music halls and of the primitive early cinema.

    For many years, grief made it unbearable to play the tapes and listen to his voice. Ultimately, I was able to transfer them to a computer and, to me, they are a treasure beyond compare.

    So yes, your advice is good.

  2. Another important means through which people “talk” before they’re gone is (are?) the letters they wrote to others. Hence the volumes of intimate and otherwise self-revelatory letters found in old boxes and trunks are the proverbial manna from heaven for the assiduous biographer.

    However, with the e-mail missive having replaced the handwritten letter, and with almost all e-mail missives being later deleted, what now is the assiduous biographer of any future luminary to do?

    • Letter writing was an art form and is now arguably gone. But letter writing was a genre that only presented people in a limited way, the way they wanted to be presented at one point in time to one person. By contrast, these reflective and unscripted memory talks sometimes get out more. The talker may begin in his/her cautious way, but eventually (maybe after an hour) forget himself and speak freely….

    • “……letter writing was a genre that only presented people in a limited way……”

      I’ll guess you haven’t read F Scott Berg’s quite recent biography of Woodrow Wilson!!

    • Indeed I have not. You’re hinting I should.
      I do recall, for instance, John Adams’ bio by David McCullough. Very good, and also in huge part based on letters between Adams and his wife.
      Still, just saying. There’s an intimacy that comes with actual conversation…

    • “…….There’s an intimacy that comes with actual conversation…….”

      Granted. But there was a special intimacy in letters that men in love wrote to their inamoratas. The austere scholarly Woodrow Wilson wooed a woman and took her to wife during his term of office, and wrote her hundreds of extremely passionate, nay lustful, letters that revealed a totally unexpected side to him.

      I feel sure that Wilson would never have been nearly as self-revelatory about all this had he been interviewed on camera by the likes of Barbara Walters. And, had the e-mail existed in Wilson’s time, he would have written, not passionate letters, but passionate e-mails, that he likely would later have zapped. Hence this passionate, and very revealing side of Wilson would never have come to light.

      Just as I may have stirred an interest in you in Scott Berg’s biography of Wilson, so you have stirred an interest in me in McCullough’s biography of John Adams. If it’s as good as his biography of Truman, it must be good indeed!!

  3. This guy I once waited on ordered an iced tea for lunch. Then he changed his order to a double Scotch on the rocks. So I brought him the double Scotch. Know what he said? He said he’d been “just kidding” about the Scotch. I had to return the Scotch and bring him his iced tea. The bartender wasn’t happy, as you can imagine. And then, of course, I had to have the manager void the Scotch. It was a nightmare.

    Want more stories? Come down (to Pressbaum). Bring a microphone.

    • Stuck at Hotel Mama for now. I’m really counting on selling those restaurant tales in order to fund my next attempt to escape out into the world. For instance, I once saw the owner of a cafe I was working at chase a fellow waiter through the dining room literally brandishing a ladle in his hand. And then there was the time when my tray kind of tipped and I spilled half a Cosmo on this guy’s suit. Stuff like that. Oh, and then one day an adjacent building caught on fire and there were real NYC firefighters (with their helmets on!) passing through the dining room in order to better access the blaze. You think the History Channel will give me a whole hour in prime?

    • Kayti said: “We octogenarians still have much to tell of the War years.”
      This is very true, but I think the octogenarians have stories to tell of life besides just the war years. The stories of simpler times, simpler ways. Stories of family life and the lie of the community. I was blessed to record stories my dad told in his dementia at the end when he would lose himself in memories of the past, talking of his pre-teen and teen years. Stories of everyday life as it existed in America while his elder brothers were off fighting in WWII, the years after when the men came home from the war and tried to settle back into the lives they had left behind, stories of being a very young father in the early 50s. There is nothing more precious to the family, now, than the stories he shared during hs last two years. I think every family should be so fortunate to have the stories of their elders to pass down as we did for generations before the electronic age took over.

  4. Family oral histories are so important although I don’t buy into the whole greatest generation myth. That descriptor has irked me since the day it first became a too sweeping, too artificial thing.
    Instead, I’d love revisiting the generations above AND below me at 10yr intervals. I think the time capsule nature of this approach creates a more accurate portrayal over a shorter period of time.
    Anyway, just my thoughts…loved this post!!!

  5. This is great. My father has just recently completed writing the story of his life because he remembered when his own father died the feeling of just not knowing enough about him. He’s now making an audio version. I know it will be something we will all treasure when we can no longer hear his voice. Capturing memories the way you have is great.

  6. Good your uncle did not let that slide, I have been amazed at the things my mother went through before she had me and after she had, but she kept all of these memories tacked away until recently I started questioning her and got most of the stories and this has increased my love and respect for her. I think we should get these stories out of them before one day we wake up and they are gone with all these stories

  7. I am doing the same with my grandfather – a WWII vet who survived both Pearl Harbor and D-Day. We’ve tried for years to get him to agree to record him, all to no avail. Then, two months ago, he asked me to bring my computer. He wanted to tell his stories. Thankfully, his life will live after him.

  8. I bought a new phone and tested the video function while my granny was telling a story from her youth. Instantly, I thought, I should do that way more often to keep her stories. what a coincident that I came across your post just a few hours later.

  9. I agree. My 86 year old mother and I are collaborating on her memoirs. I thought I knew her stories until we go over them piecemeal. I have learned so much and am so glad we did this.

  10. Love this post! My grandparents are gone…it’s too late to get more than I have, but my mother lives with me now and I intend to do this with her. My father and I are estranged, wish I could reconcile, they have led eventful lives.

  11. That’s actually a good idea. My grandmother died when I was 12 and I wish I knew more about her and her life and her thoughts. I’m glad you had that opportunity. Being a 31 year old Hispanic male, I truly wish I knew more of my heritage and the island my ancestors came from. Good piece!

  12. You are so right. I’m fairly young still but at 19 I became interested in doing genealogy. I would call and talk to everyone I could and I hold those conversations in my heart the sad part is I never thought to record them. Now most of them have passed on. I also regret never asking the questions I so wanted the answers too. Always in my 19 year old mind thinking there is always next time. I learned this is not the case when my great grandma passed away and two weeks prior I had been there gathering information for my research. My great grandma never told anyone who was the father of my grandfather and my great aunt. Looking back on it she knew why I was coming to visit that day and was probably just waiting for me to ask but I never did so she took it with her to the grave.

  13. I’ve been gathering stories from people from two communities in Newfoundland. Some people are wary. There are stories they don’t want printed in a book. Someone doesn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. I believe families and communities must preserve their stories as it is their culture, their history and needs to be written down or it gets lost. The good and the bad. Just as images get misplaced and lost, so too do stories. We need to talk to people, write down what they lived through and what they learned. Who influenced the thinking of a community? Who were the leaders and followers? Who reached out to preserve the moral fabric of the place? How did religion and hard work figure in the lives of its members? Very often much gets lost and can never be recovered, due to death, movement of people to other places, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes. It takes vigilant and committed people to see the need and carry out the work.

  14. I wish that more people took the time to sit and talk, learn and listen to what our elders and anyone learned or had to share. I loved sitting around the family room and listening to the “old timers” talk, I learned a lot and appreciated people more for that alone. I sure miss that and those people.

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