Do you remember that opening paragraph? The one by Raymond Chandler that English professors are always quoting as an example of what an opening paragraph should be. The one that goes:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”
Well, I don’t really fit the profile. I don’t think anyone has ever described me as meek, and although my doctor has developed the annoying habit of telling me I should be littler, I remain short and pleasingly plump. But although my marriage of nearly forty years remains intact I did give that carving knife some serious consideration.
“Why?” you ask. There we were, said irritating husband and myself, talking to my 99-year-old mother. As is often the case I was asking her about family when she turned to Norman and asked, “What about you Norman, did you have aunts and uncles when you were growing up?” “We didn’t have much family nearby,” he answered “but I remember we used to go to Oregon to visit my great-aunts, Amy and Jessie.”
AMY AND JESSIE! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? AMY AND JESSIE!! AMY AND…. I can hardly stand to think about it. Conservatively speaking I had asked him about Amy and Jessie thirty gazillion times. But I had asked at the wrong time or in the wrong way and had somehow failed to jog his memory.
Which finally brings us to the point. The holiday season is upon us and with it comes the opportunity to talk to family and ask them what they know of the family history. Holidays are supposed to be fun; it is inappropriate to badger people for bits of old memories and nuggets of information. Really. You are, however, free to gently solicit memories of good times past and friends and relatives gone but not forgotten. Think about the things that are unique or special to your family. Where did the recipe for Grandma’s sweet potatoes come from? Is there a reason Aunt Marigold has that weird name? Does Grandma know how her grandfather ended up in Indiana? Ask and then ask again in a different way. Odd things jog our memories; so don’t give up the first time.
When you are talking to older relatives do not appear desperate to drag out every last bit of information they have before they die. They may be old, but they’re not stupid and thoughts of the Grim Reaper are probably not welcome. Do ask them to tell you stories about their youth and then SHUT UP. Just let the conversation ramble along and good things will happen. And when the first nugget tumbles out continue to just listen. If you stop the flow of memory you may never get it back.
Talk to your brothers and sisters and cousins who are your own age. They will remember different things than you remember and they will remember the same events from a different perspective. Listen and learn.
Bring some old photos with you. Most people seem to enjoy looking at them and they are great memory joggers.
Most importantly, NEVER begin a conversation with, “I’ve been doing some work on the family genealogy.” For some reason completely incomprehensible to me nothing drives people out of the room faster. I know, it’s annoying, but they’re your family and you love them; enjoy your time together and use the carving knife on the turkey.