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.