The Heart of the Matter

A Swift Current Thankgiving essay and Storycorps The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Vuillard 1895

The things you push away the hardest when you’re young

You end up embracing when you get older…

  I just thought it was too claustrophobic

I had to get away

Now seeing the richness of it, the beauty, the connectedness…

 It moves me to tears…

                                                                                           ~Rosanne Cash

 

…And listen to this, Hallie. The professor said my paper was the best. It was so good–he put a copy in the library– he told the class everyone should read it!

Yes, mama, I know.

You know? How do you know?

You’ve told me that story before.

I have?

Yes, mama, you have…

He said my paper was…

…the best…yes, mama…I know.

We’ve all heard people repeat stories. Sometimes we smile and nod. Other times we change the subject. Often we sigh, stare, and simply

stop listening.

And when a person has dementia, the frequent repetition of unsolicited stories only seems to escalate.

My mother recounted her tales over– and over—and over again. Sometimes she would adopt a theme—the famous term paper but one example—and relive her triumph with every telling.

She could repeat a story for months; each time infusing it with unabashed excitement and exacting detail– as though it had just happened—

as though I had never heard it before.

And then one day, the story would simply disappear. To my great relief, I would never hear it again.

And now

I find myself digging into my memory–

desperate for details.

But I only find vague outlines –general topics, maybe—and the occasional catch-phrase. To my complete surprise, I need to fill in the colors–

what professor–which class—what topic?

But no matter how hard I try,

her stories are lost;

I will never hear them again.

I started writing A Swift Current with the hope that readers would glean insight from our experience. I have tried not to preach nor counsel nor advise. I want you to draw your own conclusions.

But now I am going to break my rule. I offer you one direct suggestion; in fact, it’s a command:

Grab your cell phone–find the “voice memos” app– hit the red button–

record!

And what better time to start than Thanksgiving?

Family stories were the heart of our childhood Thanksgiving dinners. My grandfather sat at one end of our table; my grandmother’s sister at the other. After the last morsel was consumed, my parents would bring out an old dog-eared cardboard box filled with fading family photos. And for the next few hours, we would hear stories of our ancestors– people whose appearance inspired both awe and amusement-what with their serious expressions, funny moustaches and large feathered hats.

…a ship captain on the Great Lakes…

…crossed the plains in a covered wagon…

…elected Sheriff of Tucson…in 1860…

1860?  Somebody write this down!

But we never would. We were lucky if someone scrawled a name on the back of a photo.

But I remember the catch in my grandfather’s voice; the faraway expression in my father’s eyes; the affection in Tia’s husky laugh;

And for a moment, the funny-looking people in the photos would come alive. I learned their names; studied their poses; heard about bravery and sacrifice and determination.

And then I would forget all about them, until the next Thanksgiving.

Every holiday is a double edged sword;

the older I get, the sharper the edge.

Today I cannot think about Thanksgiving without remembering the table of my childhood

and people who are no more;

what I would give to hear their voices again.

This time

I would listen;

this time

I would remember.

And it would not matter one bit that, in her last decade, my mother’s words could be sensible and articulate; fantastical and demented; or confused and redundant–

I would record her voice;

I would capture her stories.

During the last three decades of my mother’s life, she no longer hosted the big holiday dinner. A guest at other tables, she professed to be relieved to no longer bear the responsibility.

But after her death, among her few remaining possessions, I found scrap of paper in her small bureau drawer.

In her handwriting, a shopping list;

from her nursing home bed,

my mother was making plans.

A Swift Current Thanksgiving list found in my mom's last papers

Thanksgiving list-a scrap of paper found among my mom’s last possessions

 

Thanksgiving;

the richness, the beauty,

the connectedness…

There are some things I will never forget.

This is the story of how we begin to remember

 This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein

After the dream of falling and calling you’re name out

These are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain.

                                   ~Paul Simon

 

A Swift Current Thanksgiving essay-and StoryCorps Great Thanksgiving Listen

Pierre Bonnard Grande Salle a Manger Dans Le Jardin 1934-1935

THE GREAT THANKSGIVING LISTEN: As I was writing this post, I discovered that the day after Thanksgiving, November 27, 2015, has been designated the StoryCorps National Day of Listening. Or in their words, “Make history with us: interview an elder for the Great Thanksgiving Listen.” StoryCorps provides a special app; recordings made with the app will be housed in the oral history project of the Library of Congress. The StoryCorps website explains this project in detail, including sample questions. Here is the link: https://storycorps.me/ and https://storycorps.me/about/resources/ I am grateful to my friend Lora, who originally introduced me to StoryCorps a few years ago with the gift of a book called Listening Is An Act of Love.

Family History: I was not surprised to learn that family stories have real value for future generations. Children who know their family’s history, including hardships and failures, are more likely to be able to weather difficult times in their own lives. For more information, see The Stories That Bind Us by Bruce Feller, the New York Times, March 15, 2013 http://nyti.ms/17TFZmv

The opening quotation is from the singer/composer Rosanne Cash, interviewed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep– broadcast on January 13, 2014 with the release of her recording, The River and the Thread . I recommend entire interview: http://www.npr.org/2014/01/13/261398768/rosanne-cashs-mythic-southern-road-trip

The closing lyric is from “Under African Skies” by Paul Simon, copyright 1986 Paul Simon Music all rights reserved.

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18 thoughts on “The Heart of the Matter

  1. This is a lovely post (visually and verbally) and not advice to follow only with parents. I am currently recording my husband’s stories–which I have heard too many times over a long marriage–because he is already forgetting some. What is interesting is that as he starts a story, so many details come back.

    • Thank you. And yes, I was hoping that people would think about recording voices no matter what the age of the people. But I do think it is lovely that StoryCorps is trying to bridge the connection between young people and the elder generation.

      And you are so right, as a person tells a story, it is like cracking open a safe, and the details emerge. It is thrilling!

      Thank you and have a wonderful Thanksgiving,
      H

  2. I just loved this essay — it so reminded me of all our noisy/loving family Thanksgivings over the years, and of the joy (& responsibility) now incumbent upon our cohort to pass along the stories & the histories to the next generation(s). What a lovely reminder as we get ready to celebrate 2015’s incarnation of Turkey Day! Much love to you & JB.

    • Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and each has its own spark–even the year our plans were cancelled due to a snowstorm and John and I couldn’t find an open store–and basically ate crackers and cheese! I hope you check out the StoryCorps website…I love the idea of a National Day of Listening…
      Much love to you too, H

    • Ah Julie, you have lifted me up! It never occurred to me either, and the phone (even 10 years ago my cell had a recording function) was always nearby. Same with my dad…he had stories from his music industry career that he told with such relish-but as a teenager I had just heard them one too many times, and stopped listening. How I wish I could find a tape of his voice! Thank you for commenting-you have made my day, H

  3. Bravo! How I appreciate this reminder to listen. I miss my father’s stories, even the one’s I heard 1,000 times. And I wish I knew more…… My son asks questions. He wants to know about those that came before him..

    • Thank you. It is so wonderful that he is asking questions. Maybe he can sit with his grandmother and ask her questions this weekend…I see a StoryCorps interview in the making! And I appreciate the bravo…H

    • Aw, thanks…perhaps a good topic for your class…in fact, the StoryCorps National Day of Listening is designed for class assignments…perhaps too late for this year but an idea for next.

      Have a wonderful (to use your word) Thanksgiving,
      H

  4. Remarkable recall by an extraordinary daughter ! For those of us who cared for our mothers( or fathers or loved ones ) as they fell victim to dementia, your words always ring true -with amazing sensitivity, compassion and love. Comforting no doubt for your mother in her time and for all of us now. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • I am deeply moved by your words. Staggered actually. I know I repeat myself, but every time I write an essay, I go through huge doubt. Your comment (and others) reinforce my efforts and keep me focused. I read this one out loud to my husband! Thank you, and a wonderful Thanksgiving to you too, H

  5. Such a special post, and such wonderful advice. I miss those family Thanksgivings so much…this was my mom’s favorite holiday (as it is for so many children of immigrants), and I get comfort from re-creating her recipes. I feel blessed to know so much about my family’s past, but realize I need to pass this knowledge along to the next generation. I hope they can appreciate it a little, and not relegate me to that “elder” position (at least not yet!). Thanks to the smart person who posted about recording her husband’s voice…it’s one of the things I fell in love with first with my husband. Happy Thanksgiving, Hallie!

    • How lovely that you fell in love with your husband’s voice! It’s the small facts about people that really make a difference-and just the type of detail that adds to the colors to understanding a person’s life. And while the next generation-especially the teenagers and children, might not seem interested in the stories now, as the NY Times article indicates, hearing ancestors stories provides a basis for strength in their lives. If I sound like I am preaching, so be it! Your mom’s recipes are part of a wonderful mosaic of the past-and the future. And even though there are more than one empty seats at your table this year, I know you will have a wonderful day, H

  6. Thank you for another heartfelt post. Thankfully, through the years I recorded our family’s oral history, but what is surprising, I found that a camcorder was just too invasive. A small recorder allowed for more spontaneous and honest revelations and the speaker even forgot that I was recording their every word! These are precious recordings and memories, though I admit, I wish I did these recordings even more frequently. Your post inspires me to assemble and organize them and transfer them all onto a CD/DVD. Happy Thanksgiving, sweet friend, and happy memories! xoxo

    • It never occurred to me to record those stories, particularly my dad’s–on some level perhaps I thought I had heard them so many times, how could I forget them! And yes, I can see how people would freeze with the video, but not with audio only.

      And yes the organization is yet another step that we need to think about (I have scanned most, but not all, of our old photos onto the computer, and uploaded them to internet based websites in the hope they won’t get lost…). And I have written a family history, which constantly needs updating as I uncover more information!

      Thank you again for your support of my efforts here–and have a wonderful Thanksgiving, H

  7. I have never recorded any of my Mother’s stories and some of them are incredible, dating back to her childhood and being raised by a 63 year old father because her mother died when she was three. (her mother was 20 years younger than my grandfather) I was always fascinated by her first hand accounts of World War 2 and being raised during the depression, and all the presidents that she has seen and her opinions and impressions of all the American history that has transpired in the last 92 years! Right now she is being held in high esteem in our family because she is the last surviving member of her generation on both my mother and father’s sides of the family. The young cousins are sending her letters with many questions about their grandparents and their health histories. In January I plan a to have a party, sort of reunion so that all the generations will come to visit her and ask their questions. This is the time to record.
    As usual, you make this journey for me easier and you fill my head with knowledge…that I would not find anywhere else. You are a precious gem and I am honored to not only have attended school with you, but have you as my friend and my support network all these years later. Have a wonderful Christmas and I think that this particular post was the most special to me of them all. Hugs

    • What a moving message. I apologize that I only just say it now–I did not receive a notification of the posting. I bet your mom is thrilled that the young cousins are interested in her stories…what a history you will have for future generations. I wish I had listened closer, to both my parents…but if I share my missteps here, perhaps that will make the road smoother for you and others. That is my hope.

      Merry Christmas to you, and those young cousins too!
      H

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