“These two would go into the living room, shut the door, and get trashed,” Laurie said. “It was the only time my father drank. Maybe he had a beer now and then, but this was Scotch. It was probably what they drank over there. I was just a kid and I would think, ‘What could they be talking about all this time?’ ”
“Over there” was Europe. Laurie’s father was the lead navigator on fighter planes during World War II, and his friend was the bombardier.
“I think it must have been German bomb factories that they were bombing, but I’m not sure,” Laurie said. “I have all these papers but I don’t know all the names and what they mean. But from what I read, he was truly a hero. He was a member of something they called the Lucky Bastard Club, for the guys who flew a lot of missions. That’s really what it was called. He got an actual certificate as a member of the Lucky Bastard Club, signed by all of the bigs.”
Laurie didn’t hear any of her father's stories from him. She didn’t know he had great stories to tell. It was only when she was going through his papers after he died that she began to learn about his accomplishments, through newspaper articles about himself that he had saved, along with medals and commendations.
"Then I figured out what they must have been talking about," she speculated about her father and godfather on those Scotch-soaked afternoons. “They must have been going through each one of their missions! And nobody else would hear anything.”
People have diverse reasons not to talk about their past.
Sometimes there was just too much trauma, particularly for those who survived war or were forced to leave home to escape religious or ethnic violence.
Sometimes there's grief, modesty, shame or regret.
Sometimes, a person with fascinating memories just doesn't know anyone is interested. Laurie figures her father just didn’t believe anyone but his old war buddy would care to hear his wartime experiences and feelings. By the time she discovered how interested she was in his war experiences, she didn’t have a chance to tell him.
When I teach my “Writing the Family” classes, I offer a few very simple suggestions (which I’ll be elaborating on in upcoming blog posts) for discovering your family stories:
* Start anywhere you want, but start. People don’t live forever, and memories don’t last forever. A list of questions and a quiet time to talk can be helpful, but don’t wait for the perfect circumstances (which will probably elude you anyway).
* Use technology; don’t be enslaved by it. Smartphone apps, voice recognition software, ancestry websites, online databases, camcorders, microphones, genealogical tests, family tree programs… new tools are available all the time. Choose the ones that are useful to you and skip the rest.
* Don’t expect to "get it all." A common regret I hear from people who write about family is the sense that they didn’t do their loved one justice; there was simply too much to include, or too many missing pieces. You're right: It’s impossible to capture a whole person on paper, but whatever anecdotes and information you gather will honor your heritage--and will most likely be new to your readers.
Now in honor of Laurie and her dad, I’ll add a fourth:
* Care. Be curious. Ask. Listen. Your interest, and encouragement, are the keys that will open the vault to your family’s stories—your family’s treasure.
Stay tuned for future blog posts where I'll go into more detail about each of these suggestions.