Since it was their annual Hanukah party, the evening started with latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and other yummies to commemorate the “miracle of the oil” that marks the holiday. Children lit the menorah and sang traditional songs, so the celebration was anchored — as holidays are in all cultures — by food, music and ritual.
The rabbi’s wife had prepared a talk on the meaning of Hanukah, but so many women wanted to share childhood memories of Hanukah that she yielded her time to their impromptu stories.
One woman recalled wanting a Christmas tree so badly that she managed to get herself invited to all her friends’ houses so she could decorate their trees. A retired teacher told of introducing multiculturalism in her Texas school’s celebrations. A woman wore her mother’s “Hanukah vest,” embroidered with menorahs and dreidels, to honor the woman died at this time of year and remembering the lessons she gave her.
All this of course primed the pump for my talk. Since I know how daunting it can be to capture a family member’s life on paper, I always try to keep my suggestions upbeat. I emphasize that any stories we gather are more than we would have otherwise, to focus on the possibilities.
But at the end of the evening, a woman put her hand on my arm as her eyes welled with tears. “I wish I’d asked my father more about growing up in Vienna before the Holocaust,” she said. “I never got a chance, and now those stories are gone.” I could tell from the weight of her word “gone” that there were no other living family members who could tell her more about her father before she was born.
This is a blunt truth about family stories: They won’t be here forever. Family names and birth dates may exist in genealogical databases, but the stories only live while the people do, unless we get them down.
My mom’s mother was the family Wikipedia. She could name everyone in the family photo albums, tell us how they were related, and share anecdotes about them, until shortly before her body gave out at 99. Then access to the Grandma database was closed.
Which leads me to the first of the four suggestions I outlined in my last post:
Start anywhere you want, but start.
* People don’t live forever, and memories don’t last forever. Don’t wait for the perfect time or place to ask your family members to tell you their stories. Pick a good-enough time and place, and jump in.
* Choose a spot where your relative will be comfortable. For some, this will be alone with you in the living room. Others will be more talkative around the dinner table at a family meal.
* Decide what period of your relative’s life you most want to know about. Childhood? First impressions of America? Starting a family? Surviving a particular familial or political event? Start there.
* Prepare a preliminary list of questions, but allow it to change. One memory will lead to another, most certainly not in chronological order. Let them flow. You can decide later how to put them in order.
* Objects can trigger memories: photo albums, family heirlooms, clothing, recipes, kitchen utensils.
* Everyone has memories of food! What types of foods did they eat as a child? What foods did they want but couldn't have? What foods did they miss when they left home?
* Ask about milestones: Coming to America. The birth of their children. When they met their spouse. Death of a parent. World events.
* Ask about traditions: How did they commemorate holidays, deaths, births, weddings, coming-of-age?
* Ask what they know about their parents and ancestors, how long they lived in the old country, or origins of the family name.
To start, you don't even need to set up a formal interview. If Grandma launches a great story in the kitchen as she’s making meatballs, pull out your smart phone and hit the start button on the recorder, or scribble notes on a napkin. Seize the moment.
Your loved one’s stories will take you on a journey you can’t map out before you start. Hang on and enjoy the ride.