How One Simple Question Can Teach You So Much
motto inscribed on the frontispiece of the Temple of Delphi in Greece.
I write about the past because I’m one of those who believes that seeds planted long ago bear the richest fruit today, certainly when it comes to storytelling, if not life itself. As a writer and amateur historian, I’ve had the privilege of researching and writing family histories and life stories of several people. If there’s a favorite niche to my craft, that would be it — recording people’s stories and discovering, or should I say recovering, legacies of the past, including my own.
I guess it began for me the day I found a box full of my father’s speeches, papers and journals in my parent’s basement. In reading thirty years of his memories and words, including the manuscripts of speeches he wrote that I never knew existed, I was quick to learn that, indeed, the art of writing is in my blood. A little anemic at times, but it’s there. That was the deeper revelation. Secondly, but no less important, the more I read, the more the narrative of my father’s life took form right in front of me. So much so that I ended up writing a book about his life. In the process, I learned more about him than I ever thought possible.
Fair to say, from that point on I was hooked on non-fiction storytelling.
There are no set rules when it comes to digging into, and writing about the past. But one experience I had demonstrated to me how the simplest of questions can unlock the past and reveal all we need to know about ourselves.
A few years ago, a friend commissioned me to write the life story of her parents — both of whom were in their late eighties and had been married for nearly sixty years. In this case I was lucky — both were more than willing to go along with the project. All too often people are reticent to talk about themselves. Be it modesty or maybe even embarrassment, an initial reaction of most people is not wanting to bring up the past. Can’t say I blame them. Had it been my wife and I, I’m sure I would have thought the same thing: “You want to write a book — about us? Seriously?”
Well, the closer it came to the appointed date for our first interview, the more I started thinking — where do I start? Where do I begin to dig to bring out not one but two life stories? More to the point, what would be my first question for them once I turned on the voice recorder and set it down on the kitchen table in front of them?
The night before we were to meet, I started writing down what I thought were some good general questions to get the ball rolling, but it didn’t take long before I started feeling uncomfortable with the questions in front of me. They were either too vague and general — ‘So tell me about yourself?’ Ugh. Or they were too demanding — ‘Tell me about your first childhood memory?’ Nope. Somehow I had to connect with these people right away, and if I wasn’t feeling it, how would these questions make them feel?
There had to be some way to gently get them to start bringing out their past. Surely they had important lessons and stories to impart. After all, they had successfully raised a family and stayed married for nearly sixty years.
How is such a thing even possible? I said to myself, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek. How can it be that two people can come together, and stay together, for that long?
Then it hit me. I started crossing off the questions on my list, all save one.
The First Interview
The greetings were brief but warm while we figured out the best seating arrangement. Again, imagining myself in their shoes, I did my best to put my friend’s parents at ease. For their part, they were both as gracious and courteous as could be. Still, there was nervousness in the room.
Then the recorder came out.
I swear, even the clock on the wall stopped ticking.
I reached out and pressed RECORD. “Okay, folks, let’s get started. Why don’t you tell me how you two met?”
That was it. That was my probing, all-encompassing question, and it was immediately greeted by an even louder silence. Okay, I guess that wasn’t the magic question I hoped it would be.
A few more seconds went by. Then they looked over at one another. They smiled. The wife cleared her throat and started talking. “Well, …it was a Friday afternoon early in the Spring, at the student lounge on campus. The place was full of noise. World War Two had ended and there was such a feeling of excitement everywhere. Then I looked across the room and saw this really handsome man…”
The floodgates were opening and the memories started tumbling out. One detail led to another, (as with any story, it’s all in the details) and four hours later we were well on our way to telling the story of two lifetimes. I’m certainly not proclaiming any genius on my part for coming up with that question. Not at all. It was nothing more than common sense, really. And it worked. A year later their book was finished.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, nothing was more influential to you being who you are than the day your parents first met. Nothing formed you more than their DNA, their attitudes, their examples of how to live life. In that sense they are as much a part of your being today as an arm or a leg. So why not learn all you can about that part of you?
Tomorrow is promised for no one. Stories, like people, will eventually pass away. And once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.
Unless one takes the time now to ask questions and get to know more about the lives of loved ones. Unless you make the effort to ask your parents how they met, the central piece to the puzzle that is your life will forever be missing. If they are a little reluctant to answer, keep at it. Have fun with it. Remember, everyone’s life is a story, some parts may be more pleasant than others, but everyone has stories, and I believe deep down everyone wants to tell at least some of their story before they pass on.
So do yourself a favor. Do them a favor. Learn more about your parent’s lives. Or your grandparent’s lives. Start by asking one simple question — how did you two meet? Then sit back and learn. Find strength in their story; find kinship and inspiration from the struggles they overcame. And write it down as best as you can. If not for your sake, do it for the coming generations. Trust me, someday they’ll want to know too.
It will change the way you see your family, your life, your own doubts and struggles. In the end, it’s all about having a better perspective on life. And learning more about where you came from will change forever the way you see yourself.