When I was a family therapist, I often suggested to adult clients that they interview their parents about all those adult topics that parents don’t usually talk about to their kids. I’d always thought my own sons and I had covered all those topics in casual conversations, but I guess we skipped some because during a visit from my son and daughter-in-law last week, they whipped out a tape recorder and asked mountains of questions. Not just about me, but about my memories of family history as told to me by my parents and grandparents.
On one hand, I felt somewhat like an actor getting a lifetime achievement award because people have realized they won’t be around forever. On the other hand, I was surprised at how some of the memories I talked about still had emotional impact. At one point I had to stop and sob over a conversation I’d had with my brother when he apologized for not being more a part of my life when I was growing up. He’d been college age when I was born, and I’d never held it against him that he’d had his own adult life, but somehow telling about his apology made me break down and cry. I was also surprised at how many details of family history my son didn’t know anything about. I’d simply assumed he knew things that he didn’t.
But then when I answered questions about my own parents and grandparents, I found myself saying, “I don’t know how that happened,” or “I’m not sure this is factual or if it’s something I’ve made up from bits and pieces of information I overheard.” Since all the relatives who might know are dead, a lot of those gaps in family history will remain forever unknown. That’s a shame, because one way of being immortal is to be remembered and honored by those who come after us.
Memoirs have become trendy but many of them are either fictionalized accounts or selected memories rearranged to create a story. They’re written to sell, not to inform or inspire the author’s children or grandchildren. An honest telling of one’s personal history, the highs and lows, the triumphs and humiliations, is a different thing. If you haven’t thought about what to give your family members next Christmas, this might be a good time to sit down and start writing a personal history. Scan in some photos if you have them, or family recipes. It may be the most valuable gift you ever give them, and it’s almost guaranteed to be cherished for many generations.