I have a new computer, and am faced with the onerous task of transferring what is on the old to the new. In the past I have simply moved everything, no effort required. But now as I approach my 70th year, I am for-real retired, and want to do some pruning. With advances in mechanical capacities, each of us is given enough computer memory to easily contain everything we’ve ever written or photographed. Most of it is forgettable, but with computer memory, it is stored. I want to live a good long time, so don’t go morose on me, but having experienced the passing of my entire birth family, I realized that with their deaths go their computers and every memory stored thereon. Only things on paper survive.
I offer here an impulse here that can help others, as I did something that most people only talk about. Back in 1998, when both of my parents were still alive, I decided to get their life stories on tape. Over three long sessions I interviewed both of them. They were hesitant to participate, but at that point I knew a trick or two. I knew the secret to conversation. People love to talk about themselves. Most people are not interested and only feign anything more than passing attention, but if we probe and listen deeply, we develop a bond, and unanticipated revelations follow. Both Mom and Dad said they didn’t have much to offer. I ended up with hours of tape, and was skilled enough to prod them along. They did a good job. In the end I had a tapestry of sorts, their important memories recorded for posterity.
Not long after I was sitting at work, and the phone rang. It was Mom. She bore some heavy news. She had been to a doctor of some kind, and he told her she had Alzheimer’s. A few days later I was again sitting at work, and the phone rang. It was Mom. She bore some heavy news. She had been to a doctor of some kind, and he told her she had Alzheimer’s.
I made copies of the cassette tapes and sent them to various aunts and uncles and to my brothers. I slowly came to realize that only one person ever took the time to sit down and listen – my brother Steve. He had some insight, as usual. He said that the conversations revealed what incredible poverty both of our parents endured. They had nothing all during their young lives and struggled to put together only small lives in a small house in a small city.
They each grew up on farms. In Mom’s case, a family of nine witnessed their house burn down. I asked about insurance … no. That was not done in those days, she said. The entire family, Grandpa and Grandma and their seven daughters, got on a train and went from green Wisconsin to barren and dry eastern Montana to live with my great uncle in his three-room shack with an outdoor privy. Grandpa did not tell him he was bringing his whole family. Mom said Uncle Mike was often in a bad mood. She did not blame him.
As my grandmother got off the train in Baker, Montana, on the parched prairie, she said “This is it?” They would eventually find another house and in the post-war years drift off, most back to Wisconsin. Mom was the only one to stay in Montana.
Dad’s family owned a small piece of land and had some dairy cows and gardening space in Great Falls, Montana. There were nine of them too. There was so much unspoken that I cannot make enough space between the lines wide enough for the pain and suffering, but one day Dad went to the barn and found his father hanging from a rafter.
Some years back my wife and I went searching for graves in Great Falls, and we found Grandpa’s. It was not beside Grandma’s, as suicide precluded his burial in the Catholic cemetery. It was a large stone memorial with an eerie daguerreotype. I was told that my Dad paid for that grave marker with all the money he could assemble, and from that I understood his guilt. Suicides are cruel, not to the person doing the deed, but to those he left behind. Not only was the family left in poverty, but also in inconsolable grief. Grandpa may have been suffering, but it is hard to forgive what he did. The living bear the scars.
So Mom made her way to Billings and normal school, and dad to the same place to apprentice in the neon sign business, and they met and fell in love, each somehow an answer to the other’s pain. They were little people without resources or education. Their lives would have passed without much mention, but I did get it down, I did hear their stories.
Except, I realized, that my getting it down was only on my computer. Some years back I had the cassette tapes of the interviews transferred to CD, a pricey task. From there I put them on my computer, and with each successive new machine have transferred them over. But I realized that when I pass along, so too does my computer and all its contents. Who will take the time?
I knew what had to be done, and earlier this year I sat down and for several days and many hours transcribed the interviews to paper. It had been 21 years since we sat down together, so there were many surprises in what ended up being a labor of love. Once assembled I printed out copies, one for each side of the family, and mailed them to my cousins. I am not naive. I know people do not read. But I also know that they keep stuff. If it is on paper, there is a chance that somewhere down the road some curious and literate descendant might find the interviews and sit down and read them, and memories will be preserved.
My message here is simple. I was smart enough to know that their lives mattered. I got it down on paper. If you are in a similar position as I was in 1998, do the same. They won’t live forever. Get it down.