Get it down

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.

16 thoughts on “Get it down

  1. I think it’s wonderful that you took the time and effort to do all that. It really speaks to your love for your parents and wanting to remember where you came from. Inspiring, I should do the same while my folks are still around…


  2. Go to It is a print on demand site and there’s no cost until you order a copy of the book you should make of these transcriptions. I’m not talking about rewriting it all in some flowing narrative. I mean, print it all between hard or soft covers and get a half dozen copies or more made. Then, send a copy to some preservation society library or somesuch, if there is such a place that would be interested in a world long gone.
    I’ve used Lulu for years and their tech is easy to comprehend. I print graphic stuff but also straight prose. It is for the exact same reason: To let anyone know (my nephews to start) that I was here.
    Lulu’s learning curve is not steep. You have to submit pdf’s and design a cover, which they can do in default options if you don’t play photoshop much. It’s all free until you order a copy and its relatively inexpensive even then. The site steps take some patience if traffic is heavy, but I can usually get a book uploaded in less than an hour. The quality is very good. I do trade paperbacks, primarily. Their hardcovers are good, too.
    They have shipping options- I take the cheapest because I don’t do deadlines so it takes a couple of weeks. You can pay for overnight if you want.
    I’ve even preserved some things from online from other authors*, just in case the internets go Chinese and we lose the first amendment, or worse. Or someone gets paranoid and he pulls his stuff.
    POD is a great supplement for preservation.

    *Lulu asks right away if you want your book available to the public through their bookshop and Amazon. I choose the private-only available to me- option because in most cases with other people’s work, i didn’t bother to ask. (I’m not selling mine or anyone else’s work, BTW. Just preserving.)


    1. Thanks Ty … I will take a look at this. Just by chance I ordered a book of cartoons from Lulu. It just arrived today. I had no idea about the company. What a coincidence!

      There is a book called Badlands about life on the prairie of Eastern Montana and the homesteaders. My grandparents were not homesteaders, came too late. I got the book from my brother, and then sent it to my aunt out in Washington, the lone survivor in Mom’s band. As it turns out, she was the one who bought the book and then gave it to Steve who gave it to me. There are names in the book, and my Aunt knew these people. (Interesting … good neighbors close gates. Telephones back then used fence wire, and if a gate was left open the connection was lost.) Such a small world, but a small town out on the Montana prairie called Ismay in 1993 changed its name to Joe, for one year, a publicity stunt, Joe Montana … ha ha. The idea was to have a 4th of July parade and Joe would be the parade marshall in the lead float. He didn’t show.


      1. Who’s the cartoonist if you don’t mind sharing? I’ve always been into cartooning and dabble in writing and drawing… Still struggle to get it right, it’s a challenging craft. For some of us anyway.


    2. Thought I’d step away from coronacraziness to let you know I have taken your advice here, Mark. Have recorded the first two of a series of interviews with my mother about her life. We’ve gotten through her earliest childhood memories up to the time I was born, and will continue until we get up to the present day. I know she’s enjoying it and I’ve learned a lot about her and myself. Thanks from both of us.


    1. I’m so grateful for this post and the comments. I’m in the final stages of a writing project that has involved sifting through my own childhood memories. The process has deepened my awareness of how thin the line is between memory and imagination. It’s also convinced me there’s magic, real magic, in the names of people we knew as children, or simply long ago, perhaps especially if they have been out of our lives for a long time. This writing project has been such a joyful experience and I’ve wondered if or what writing project I’ll take on when it’s finished. You’ve given me a strong idea what it might be. My mother has breast cancer. She recently told me about some life experiences she wanted to write down, but she hasn’t felt competent to do it. Her life deserves the kind of attention you gave (and are still giving) to your parents’ lives. Thanks, Mark.


  3. Wonderful advice, get photos too! My aunt has a treasure of photos she saved that her kids, my cousins aren’t interested in, so she’ll be leaving them with me. Looking at photos of your ancestors on both sides three generations back and seeing a resemblance creates a very neat feeling.


  4. Was the Chris Watts family murders fake – a project?

    Shanann Watts was heavily on Facebook and Youtube before the murders apparently.


        1. Other than Dr. Phil popping in, I don’t see much to go on in terms of spookiness in number signals other than Watt being 33 at the time of his arrest. Dr. Phil, like Anderson Cooper, is used to solidify the public perceptions that fake events are real. Intelius shows a Christoper Lee Watts, age 34, the right age, and a relative named Shannan King. It has the right location, sort of, as it has him in NC and then CO, but Erie, near Boulder, in CO, where the supposed murders took place in Frederick, way up north. Watts’ wife is said to be Shan’ann Cathryn Watts (nee Rzucek). So there’s a fundamental mistake there, as the name Shanann and Shan’ann are too close to be coincidental. There is no mention of the two children on Intellius.

          The interview is emotionless, but get this – he was having an affair and had fallen pretty hard for his mistress. Generally narcissists or sociopaths go through the motions devoid of real emotion. They have to fake it. I have this problem in general when I see people killing each other in movies and having a soft side too. I don’t think it works. I suspect we have an actor here. Sometime check out Dylan Klebold’s mother at Ted Talks – same deal,

          I looked up myself on Intelius and they got the basics down, with some odd-duck unknown relatives. I would not call it sterling dependable.


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