I have a good idea for a holiday present. You can give it to your entire family or yourself. It's a perfect complement to that new video camera or that new stereo. It even works well with that new Cross pen. Like many good ideas, I found it right under my nose. I just finished a long book tour for a new novel. The title, "For One More Day," reflects the story; a man who magically gets one day back with someone who died in this case, his mother.
At one point late in that day, he asks his mother to tell him the family history, how everyone was related. She resists, saying, "I've told you that stuff." But the son never listened while she was alive.
This one last time, he does.
In my travels, I have been encouraging people to have that conversation. To ask their relatives about those who came before them, where they were born, how they lived, what they looked like, their favorite expressions, the food they cooked, the jobs they held, the quarters they lived in. I have been urging people to collect those stories before it's too late, before as happens in the book the family history is buried in the ground.
Then one night, on a plane, going from city to city, I realized how hypocritical I was being.
Because I had never done it myself.
And so I did.
I got a video camera. I flew home. And I sat my mother and father down on a couch and said, "Let's start from the beginning. As far back as you can remember."
What followed were several hours of memories. People long since dead came alive again. Names not spoken in years were beckoned and spelled for the record. Sure, some of the history came out a little crooked. My mother would get a face wrong, or think one uncle was actually another uncle, or this one had kids and the other one didn't. But between cajoling from my father and a few choice anecdotes, we got it right.
And I found out things I never knew. I never knew that my grandfather who died before I was born took my mother once a week to help him wash a car he owned but couldn't park near his apartment. I never knew my great-grandmother, who didn't speak English, and was once in a courtroom with a translator.
I never realized this uncle was the brother of that aunt. I never knew relatives I thought of as close kin were only related through marriage. In short, I got a crash course in our family tree. The branches made sense. The leaves came alive. And the camera? We forgot about it five minutes after we set it up. One thing about when families talk about families. It's nearly impossible to distract them. But I am looking at the film as I write this. And I realize that before me is the 2006 version of a dusty, gold-leafed book in an attic library.
This is our history. This is who I am. So with the holidays around the corner, I can now encourage this idea not only as an author but as practitioner: Get out the camera, the tape recorder, or the yellow pad. Clear aside a few empty hours. Put out a pot of coffee maybe a few cookies to get the brain cells going.
And collect the stories. Look. It has to be better than what most of us do with a video camera shove it in the face of visitors and yell, "Say something funny!"
Forcing a memory into a lens is one thing. Capturing one is another.
Besides, there are few things sadder than a child asking questions about Grandpa or Aunt May and the parent wishing someone were still alive who could give the answer. We should never let that happen. We don't have to. Try this at home. It's as classic as a red necktie. As timeless as a diamond. It's the best gift I can think of: Find out who you are.
Even an Xbox can't do that.