Think about those people who are going to be sitting at your Thanksgiving table this year: the parents and grandparents who have given you a lifetime of love and unvarnished advice; the aunts and uncles who slipped you envelopes when you went off to college, or wagged a finger in your face and warned you to “watch yourself” when you even thought about stepping out of line. Sure, you know their stories. In fact, you’ve probably rolled your eyes more than once because you’ve heard some of those yarns over and over and over again: “Lord, there goes Uncle Roscoe telling that same old tale about the time he had to climb up the tulip oak at Grandma’s house to get little Jimmy down off the roof.”
But have you heard their full life stories? Probably not. On that Friday after Thanksgiving, most of us turn our attention to the preparations and gift giving for the next big holidays on the calendar — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Ashura. But before that tornado begins, take a moment to consider a day of listening. Instead of joining that stampede to the mall, slow down for an hour to interview someone you care about. Do it over a meal, because food always helps lubricate a conversation.
Compile a series of simple questions: “What did you used to do for fun on a Saturday night?” “Tell me about your summer job — or the first time you saw the big city.” Simple questions will open the spigot and get the conversation flowing. Remember to ask specific and evocative questions that will also tickle the senses: “What was the air like in a town filled with big factories?” “Can you still remember the taste of your wedding cake?” “How would you describe the smells from your mother’s kitchen?” “What did you do first thing in the morning when you lived back on the farm?”
If at all possible, try to record those conversations. It’s easier than ever with today’s technologies, using mobile phones, computers, flip recorders or video cameras. You can find a do-it-yourself guide at my website or at nationaldayoflistening.org. You’ll also find more suggested questions and ideas for preserving and sharing NDL interviews.
Photos are great. Letters are wonderful. Memories alone can sometimes sustain us through distance and even death. But there is nothing like preserving the sound of those you love telling their own stories, in their own words, with their own voices. If you must rush out to the stores that day and engage in retail madness, have fun. But remember this: Family history is an incredible gift — better than anything you will ever find in any mall.
I hope some of you will share some of what you discover from your family interviews in the “Your Stories” section at my website, here at The Root and at the StoryCorps Wall of Listening. The Root will also be posting some of the best StoryCorps conversations on its website all week.