Friday, March 24, 2017
Filling in the Blanks
How important it is to take the opportunity to interview relatives—not just once but as many times, over the years, as possible. Yes, in the earlier years, people certainly have fresher memories of their older relatives. But some things come to the forefront of memory right after the fact, pushing aside reflections that only evolve into greater insight later. Sometimes, those secondary reflections can be more telling than the original reporting of the factual side of memories.
My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with my cousin and his wife yesterday. While I've plied him with family questions repeatedly over the years—he has graciously been the one with the patience to keep at it, no matter how many questions I've had—there is always more to learn.
This time, our visit was more in the style of a reminiscing chat than the step by step note-taking tasks of earlier years. We puzzled together over the enigmas in our family's history, why certain relatives were so reticent to tell about their experiences in conversation. And as we talked about our research frustrations, our own conversation mirrored the pattern that, eventually, have gotten a few others in the preceding generation to open up and talk.
Our main research problem is that our grandfather never told anyone much about his past. He tried to pass himself off as a descendant of an Irishman, when in fact he was Polish. Part of that, we now understand, was both a case of economic necessity and political survival in an era when there was no Poland—those of Polish descent were considered to be part of Germany in a war era in which that ethnic background was not viewed favorably. But there was something else quite mysterious about his choice to conceal his background. We knew next to nothing about him—even this cousin who, unlike myself, knew him personally.
Having already beat that issue soundly—rehashing our research problem yielded no further clues—our visit turned to a time of reminiscing about various relatives. Because my dad—his uncle—was a professional musician during the time in which New York City had a much more active show scene, my cousin often had the opportunity to go visit him at the theater in which he played. What a thrill for a teenager to have the opportunity to sit backstage or in the orchestra pit during a show—and to rub shoulders with some big names in the entertainment field. And what an eye opener to see these people, behind the scenes, when others knew only of their public personalities.
My cousin got to telling some stories about his observations of my dad in action at work that I've never heard. Of course, as much as our grandfather never talked about himself, apparently, neither did my dad. I came away from yesterday's visit gleaning a few examples of just what my dad was like in action—character clues I'd otherwise have never seen through anyone else's eyes.
Just getting that gift of gab flowing was helpful. No agenda at hand to pump for specific details. Sometimes, a plot like that only bogs down the conversation. Better not to have that sense of a desperado, absolutely having to achieve that interview mission before leaving—as if it were for the last time, or else. Far better to view the interview process as a series that can be revisited as needed, rather than a once-for-all, or else, process.
My brother had used that same approach once, during a visit at my aunt's eightieth birthday party. Rather than the do-or-die approach, he just settled in for a nice, comfortable chat as he gently drew my aunt down memory lane. Surely my aunt was flattered at the attention. But she also was tracking with him as he walked her from one memory of favorite relatives, to "the time when..." opportunities to talk about recollections of good times.
The episode had taken on the aura of a conversation rather than an interview. There were no questions that could be "answered wrong." The give and take of the conversation meant both parties were contributing to the memories. And when my aunt's memory ran into dim or hazy patches, my brother had been able to deftly steer her towards parts of the episode that she could remember more clearly.
While our visit with my cousin and his wife yesterday certainly didn't encounter those kinds of memory hazards, it was just a more relaxing experience to hear those memories unfold. Not driven by an agenda of getting all those questions answered, but by the enjoyment of letting the mind travel down the memory lanes chosen at the moment, I got to learn a lot about family members in the years preceding my own arrival, late, on the family scene.
Sometimes, it's when we limit ourselves to specific time frames or sets of questions that simply must be answered that we miss all that can come our way. Why limit ourselves to the be-all, end-all approach to interviewing, when taking the opportunity to have yet another visit with a cherished family member can be not only so much more enjoyable, but informative as well.