Holiday Mission: Filling in Some Blanks

This Thanksgiving, after the turkey goes in the oven and before the potatoes get mashed, I’m going to interview my parents.

I’ve been promising myself I’d do this ever since my friend Ingrid told me about Story Corps, the app that helps you record meaningful conversations (with anyone — parents, grandparents, friends, kids, anyone) then archives those conversations in the Library of Congress. She sat down with her grandfather on his 90th and his 100th birthday and said as long as you have a quiet room, it can’t been easier.

Part of the reason I want to do this is because I never knew any of my grandparents (above, my grandfather presiding over his Passover table, flanked by his brothers). All four of them died before I was born, the last one eleven days before my twin brother and I entered the world. This wasn’t something I thought about much until I had kids of my own — you can’t miss what you don’t know — and saw how special the grandparent-grandchild relationship can be. Now I think about it all the time. Not only because I see what I missed out on, but because I didn’t get the chance to really know them and hear their personal histories. Thanks to all those crayon-drawn Family Tree assignments from grade school, I know where and when my grandparents were born, if they were born in America or arrived on Ellis Island, but when it comes down to it, I don’t really know them at all. When did they fall in love? What were their biggest regrets and fears and dreams? Did they love to cook? What was their Bronx like during the war? Did they love New York? (Or, Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania on my mom’s side.) Were they proud of their kids? Are any of them the source of the speedy gene that makes their great grandchildren run so fast?

To be honest, the voids in family history go deeper than grandparents. I’m very close with my mom and dad (shown way up top on their wedding day, 1968) and I’ve heard certain famous stories from their childhoods so many times they’ve become punchlines, but there are a lot of blanks that could use filling in with them, too.

How will I know where to even start filling in those blanks? StoryCorps has a page on their site called “great questions” which seems like a good place to begin. Here are some examples:

  • What was your childhood like?
  • Who has been the most important person in your life?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
  • Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
  • What is your favorite memory of me?
  • What are you proudest of?
  • When have you felt most alone?
  • How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
  • Do you have any regrets?
  • How did you and Mom/Dad meet?
  • What was the worst fight you ever had? How did it resolve?
  • What were your parents like?
  • What were your grandparents like?

I’m going to pick a few and send them to my parents ahead of time so they have some time to think about their answers. And yes, you can probably do this with your smartphone’s audio recording app if you don’t want to go through the StoryCorps app, but I like the idea that these personal stories get stowed away in the Library of Congress, adding texture to history books to be read for generations. It feels like one more way to feel like we’re all part of the same story.

P.S. My latest “Burning Questions” column for Cup of Jo is dedicated to Thanksgiving-themed head-scratchers. Check it out and have a great holiday!

P.P.S. Remember Andy’s Thanksgiving Mad Lib? Also, reminder that there’s a full Thanksgiving menu, including instructions for roasting your first turkey ever in my last book, How to Celebrate Everything.

Have a great holiday everyone!

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9 Comments

Leslie

Just an aside, but how is it possible that I’ve been reading DALS for 9 years and just now realized that you’re a twin?? I don’t know if this reflects poorly on you or on me!

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Tara

Same! I can’t believe I didn’t know this! If you are inclined, I would love to hear more about that, as I’m a mom to 22 month old boy/girl twins. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

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Alison

Jenny, I love this idea more than you could know. I have the opposite situation from you – I had an insanely close relationship with my own grandparents. Italian-American, my sisters and I were their only grandkids – we saw them multiple times/week, vacationed with them; they were a second set of parents, really. My own parents are now both gone – my mom 8 years ago before I had kids and my dad just last month but my kids never really “knew him,” as he wasn’t in great health the last few years. I’m going to share this idea with everyone I know in hopes someone I know takes advantage….

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Jenny

Alison – You’re very lucky you were that close with your grandparents, and I’m sorry that you’ve lost your father so recently. Maybe your kids should interview you about your parents this holiday?
Thanks for spreading the word.

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Jenny

That’s so funny — I always forget that being a twin is something most people find interesting. That’s probably why I usually just refer to him as “my brother” instead of “my twin brother.” I’ll work on it!

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Sara

I interviewed my parents using Story Corps questions several years ago. My dad died this summer and I am so grateful for those recordings. The interviews themselves are also nice memories.

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