“I’m so glad you did this. So glad.”
Those are the words my boyfriend Doc M said to me as we listened to his mother talk about her life. Two years ago, I recorded an interview with her. Three nights ago, we heard that recording for the first time since I– well, we– made it.
My boyfriend’s mother went into the hospital in early October. She died two weeks later, on October 19.
(This story, in addition to saying something about recording family oral history, is also an explanation why there’s been so little activity on this site recently.)
Over the weekend, Doc M worked on a first draft of the eulogy for his mother’s memorial.
Now, Doc M is an engineer; what comes naturally to him is stuff like reading over my article on analog and digital and then saying, “wait a second. I don’t know if that illustration is correct.” We google the mathematical algorithm for digitizing, and he– right then and there– jots it down, and starts working through the math. Just like that! I’m amazed. But writing? No, that’s what I do. He’s often said, “I’m not a writer.”
But he is a son, and there’s a eulogy that must be written.
So, I, the writer, have been helping him. I’ve given him little writing experiments to help ease him into it, to get him past that awful stuck place, where words won’t come and the image of standing up to deliver this speech looms. Too much pressure. I told him to sit down and write a list that begins with the words “My mother was…” and complete that sentence as a list over and over again. A whole bunch of statements. If you fill up a page or two, you’ll hit upon important themes that will be worth expanding. “Ooooh! that sentence. There’s a story there. What is it? …. okay, write that down.” I’ve listened to and cheered each story as it emerges. Bought him Trader Joe’s chocolate peanut butter cups (Reese’s does. not. compare.), fed him tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. Yeah, sure, we ate the soup and sandwiches before the peanut butter cups. But hey, we all know what’s really important.
After he’d written out a few stories, I said, “Do you want to listen to your Mom’s oral history recording?”
Pause. He sucked in his breath. “Oh, this is gonna be hard.”
(I flashed onto a memory of hearing recordings of my grandfather’s voice, after his death. For me, the hearing has been a pleasant thing, It isn’t a source of sadness. But wow. To listen so soon after her death? Who knows what this will be like?)
We fortified ourselves, found the minidisc, popped it in and pressed play.
And there was her voice. Talking in complete sentences, about herself. I can’t fully answer for his initial reaction, but I can tell you what mine was: relief. Over the last few months, her speech was limited. In the hospital, she didn’t talk much at all. Mostly “yes” and “no.” So it was a pleasant jolt to hear her talk. To hear her as she was, before dementia and illness took her speech away. I was refreshed by it. Lightened.
And of course, there were stories. There were little reminders of things that’d slipped Doc M’s mind. When she talked of learning to play the accordion. Doc M exclaimed, “That’s right! She did play the accordion!”
He turned to me, more than once, and said, “Thank you for doing this. I’m so glad you did.”
I’m glad, too.
Two years ago on a sunny September weekend, we visited her. Hung pictures in her new apartment. Went out for pizza. Chatted. I’d brought my recording equipment, so at a pause in the afternoon, it was a matter of Just Doing It. (I think Doc M had talked with her about it before our visit: Susan would like to interview you and ask you questions about your life and record it.) So I swallowed, and said, “Would you like to talk to me about your memories and your life now?” (hey, just because I have this site and all doesnt mean that the initial moment of a recording is a slam-dunk for me. It’s not.)
While Doc M fixed the lamp in her bedroom, I sat down with her in the living room. (Why did we choose that I would interview her and not her son? Because I was a “fresher ear”—I hadn’t heard the stories before, so perhaps she’d fill in a few more details rather than telling it again with some of the context already understood.)
I clipped an inexpensive RadioShack lapel microphone to her sweater, and connected it to the little minidisc recorder. I plugged in my earphones and stuck an earbud in one of my ears to monitor the sound levels and make sure that the mic connection was good. There was one point where it got loose or noisy, resulting in a clump of caterwauling electronic noise in the recording. But I must’ve caught it pretty fast and readjusted the connection, because the noisy bit didn’t last too long.
I asked her to tell me about her childhood, and asked follow up questions about what she said.
Though we were planning to record more, it turns out that that was the only recording we made, during two sessions that afternoon. Doc M did join us part way through the interview and asked some questions of his own.
While we listened, I heard the recording at many levels: It was good to have a recollection of her when she was stronger. I’ve heard the saying, “Remember her as she was, during better times.” Truly, we have done so, and we don’t have to reach for that memory. I listened for stories that would be good to include in Doc M’s eulogy: “Oh, you totally have to use that.” It was good to have a record of her talking about her own life using her own words as an authoritative account—what better source material for a eulogy? And I evaluated my interview technique: Did I leave enough of a pause for her to recall and to answer, or did I jump in too fast with a follow-up question? Eh, so-so. I didn’t talk over her, but some of those pauses were uncomfortably short. On the other hand, I was glad that I followed discussion of a difficult phase of her life with questions about her work as a teacher—work she found immensely satisfying. She said she did what she loved, so it was good to leave the interview on a high note.
Doc M said to me with such feeling and tenderness in his voice, “I’m so glad you did this, Susan. So. glad.”
Last night, Doc M called his sister to discuss the many details and arrangements. He said, “We listened to this recording of Mom that Susan and I made. It’s so good. It’s Mom as she was. You have to listen to it. You have to hear it.”
Two years ago, I was thinking about what she was saying, focusing on her stories, making sure I was listening closely, watching the equipment, noting subjects to follow up. When I thought about what came next, I weighed whether to do a second interview on a later visit (which didn’t happen. Alas. The interview, not the visit, that is.) I had no inkling of what it would be like to listen to her voice, so soon after her death, and what it would mean for her son that we made this recording.
You never know. You never can know. But the equipment and the gulp, “well, here goes” and the conversation during an afternoon is transformed into something of unspeakable value.
What a touching story, and so beautifully written. You’ve inspired me. Thank you Susan.
Susan; What a beautiful story. I did something similar with my grandmother when she was 97 years old. I did a video of the interview. Although it is priceless I realized that I had waited a little too long to do this. She had forgotten many important aspects of her life. Tell your readers to do this sooner rather then later.
Thank you both for your comments. What amazes me about the events of this story (and the writing thereof) is that it’s been a present-tense thing. I’m not reaching into the past to recall the events of a few months ago, or years ago. Nope. It’s blogging, with that immediate sense of five minutes ago (okay, three days ago).
Linda, when I think of how to say “do it sooner,” the most effective way I can do so is by telling a story. I know that if I were on the other side of things—- reading a a story like this, where I’m pulled into the unfolding experience of the “so glad, so glad” narrator, it’d have more impact than any direct exhortation.
In the midst of these events, have I been thinking, Man oh man, I gotta sit down with Dad, Uncle L, Uncle R and…? You betcha! Hmm. Makes me look forward to a lengthy visit with various family over the Thanksgiving holiday.
You write beautifully. As a newcomer let me just say your layout is gorgeous. Secondly that the premise of the Blog itself is an awesome idea. It reminds me of the book & movie “Everthing Is Illuminated”. All stories big and small matter. Real people all have a story worth telling. This just proves it.
Thanks, Kat! I guess I’ll have to read/see Everything Is Illuminated; I missed the movie when it came through. But there’s always Netflix.
This touched me for a personal reason:
I still have a very old answering machine stashed up
over the kitchen cabinet. It was replaced years
ago by one of those telephone/answering machine
I keep it because on the tape there are the voices
of both my parents. I wish I’d had the foresight
to make recordings of them when they were still
Bill, it’s amazing what sort of “ephemera” from then is so valuable now.
What’s the tape format? regular cassette? looping cassette? Mini Cassette? (I’m thinking about how to get the recordings off of that tape and into some other form).
On a similar note, I remember how bummed I was to learn that my grandpa’s outgoing message had been erased from the answering machine at the Lake House after he died. It’s not that we don’t have recordings of him (we do), but that his outgoing message was fun:
I can’t come to the fone
because I’m on the throne
so leave a message
at the sound of the tone.
Compliments to you for all your work! I just bought a digital recorder and did some experimenting with it. I had a little girl about 4 or 5 years old tell me some “once upon a time stories”. I took her picture too. Then I transferred the recording to my computer, then to a CD. I was so amazed it worked. I made a copy, put it in a CD case along with her picture. Her parents were so tickled to get it and I bet she will be thrilled to listen to herself. I really want to do interviews with my mom and dad and other family members while they still can remember. Can you recommend a guideline of questions to ask for some good interviews for preserving family history? I know there are several books on the market, but was hoping to find something for free online. Any help you could provide would be most appreciated.
Thanks, and keep up the good work!
Janet, thanks!! On interviewing: I’ve got a category of posts devoted to interviewing.
If you want a quick one-stop place to come up with interview questions, go to the Storycorps Question Generator. They help you select (and compose) some questions, and then email your list of questons to you.
Also: The Remembering Site has some sample questions to help get you started. The site is the project of D. G. Fulford, who’s co author of the book To Our Children’s Children (a book of nothing but questions to tease out stories.
Oh and Janet… I’m curious. What kind of digital recorder did you get?
I couldn’t spend a lot of money, but I got an Olympus WS-300M. I’m thinking I should get an external mic, but the little recording I first made I just held in my hand and kept it very still, and that worked just fine.
I just went to the StoryCorps Question Generator. Thank you for an excellant recommendation! I just printed all the questions. The typeset is large print so it took 13 pages. It’s easy to read though! The categories are: Great Questions, Growing Up, School, Love and Realationships, Marriage, Raising Children, Working, Religion, Serious Illness, Family Heritage, and War. This list of questions is probably plenty, but I did order a book:
Recording Your Family History: A Guide to Preserving Oral History With Videotape, Audiotape, Suggested Topics, and Questions, Interview Techniques by William Fletcher (Paperback - Aug 1989)
Now I just have to weed through all the questions and come up with enough courage to actually do the interviews! It’s a little scary because some of the process could be very emotional.
Thanks for your help!
Thanks so much for this story. Great website.
I look forward to coming back and reading more. I’m currently working on a spoken word recording project of my own, which reading this has helped push me further along into.
James, glad you stopped by and that you found this story inspiring. Your comment is well timed for me, too. I came back last night after a visit with my dad to record another session for the Veterans History Project, and saw that you’d just commented.
Good luck with your endeavors. Please feel free to describe your project here!
I took an oral history class in college and I loved it. I have done over 10 hours of taping with my parnets and gradparnets. When I was in college we would tape it and then transcribe it. But lately I have been using a web cam. You get both audio and video. I then edit it down. My Grandmother died a about 2 months ago and we play part of the interview at the funnel. It was perfect, everyone loved it.
What a touching story, and so beautifully written things expressed in way that i would say just awesome.
Thanks for post. It’s really imformative stuff.
I really like to read.Hope to learn a lot and have a nice experience here! my best regards guys!