Many things that our parents and grandparents consider "ordinary" or uninteresting about their lives are riveting to younger generations. The world that our children are growing up in is a dramatically different place from the one their grandparents knew as young people.A Different World
Personally, I've always loved living-history museums. I enjoy seeing how earlier generations cooked, slept, worked, and played. In our culture, it's amazing how quickly we bury the past as new technologies and ways of life become available to us.
Most children today have never heard of a "party line" or could imagine a home without at least one or two televisions, a microwave, and a computer. My children think that it's rather commonplace to carry a phone around in your pocket and to be able to access a world of information with a few keystrokes. What ever happened to the traveling encyclopedia salesman? A Personal Account of Days Gone By
Day-to-day living has changed immensely over the past 100 years, and there are people in your life who can share firsthand experiences about growing up in the early 20th century.
So the next time you're sitting around the dinner table with an older relative, throw out a few questions about life in "the good old days," and see what comes back to you. At the very least, I guarantee a big smile and a few hearty laughs.
Here are a few questions to get you started:
- Did you have any favorite radio shows when you were growing up?
- When did your family first get a television? Did you have a car? What kind?
- Did you have a telephone in your home?
- What advertising jungles, brand-name products, and comics do you recall?
- How did you get to school? What other memories do you have of school days?
- What did you bring for lunch, or did you go home for lunch?
- What do you remember about your childhood games and toys?
- What were the typical meals served in your home?
Objects that we carry around with us on a daily basis help shape (and tell) the story of our lives. That's the premise of Pocketology, or the study of pockets - an autobiographical approach to relational art devised by Rachel Ellison, a 25-year-old art student in Toronto.
In her blog, "Stories You Haven't Heard,"
she explains how seemingly random items that we stash away in backpacks, handbags, and wallets all provide a great starting-point for storytelling.
I find this idea very intriguing. As I read through some of the Pocket Stories
on her website, it was interesting to see how "pocket items," even as seemingly mundane as a crumbled Kleenex or a container of floss, all kickstart a story.
Where and how did you get it? Why did you decide to keep it? What does it remind you of? What past memories related to this object come to mind?
A game of "What's in your pocket?" really would be an interesting alternative to the often go-nowhere, "So how was your day?"
Although not everyone will embrace the idea of revealing their hidden treasures, the concept of using things
in our life to jumpstart meaningful conversation and sharing of our thoughts and experiences is a good one.
So, what's in your
Uncovering the details
I was recently talking with a woman whose daughter had given her a blank journal, asking her to write about her life. "I'm happy to do it," she said. "But what does she want to know?"
The more I hear this question, the less it surprises me. We often feel that it's only the "big events" in our lives that are worth recounting. But it's the everyday details of "life back then" that are most intriguing to the next generation.
A six-year-old boy may want to know what games or sports his grandfather played. Whereas, a teenage girl may be curious about the music her grandmother enjoyed, or what she remembers about her "dating days." Personally, I became very interested in my grandmother's motherhood experience in my early thirties, when I had children of my own.
Digging below the surface
Most adult children and grandchildren whom I meet want to hear about the happenings in their parent or grandparent's life, but they also want to know how those life events affected and shaped them.
How did it feel to have your first child while Granddad was away at war? What did you love about painting when you were a teenager, and why did you give it up?
We know that our loved one's story is worth hearing. But we don't always give much thought to what it is we want to know. Before you ask your parent or grandmother to start sharing, you'll want to take some time to consider what blanks you'd like to be filled.
Finding the questions
A helpful (albeit, emotional) exercise is to fast-forward 10, 15 , or 20 years when your loved one is no longer a phone call away. What do you think you might want to know about his or her life? Imagine being able to step back in time and talk with that person. What are the answers that you might seek?
With just a few simple questions, you have the opportunity to create that time machine today. You'll thank yourself later.
I've crossed paths with a surprising number of people who just don't believe that their kids and grandkids are all that interested in hearing their life stories. But ironically enough, I've yet to meet someone who isn't curious about an older relative's personal history. It's just that, given the hectic nature of 21st-century living, they haven't found the time or opportunity to start the conversation. A Matter of Bad Timing
As I often say, it's just a matter of bad timing. When we're young and our parents and grandparents are sharp and eager to share their experiences with us, our lives are extraordinarily busy … with school and friends, followed by work and families of our own. Time just keeps ticking by, and we hardly even notice it.
Until our lives begin to slow down with kids leaving home or careers hitting a nice, comfortable plateau … and then we have a million questions that we'd like to ask. But many of us end up missing our opportunity, as our parents' or grandparents' health fails or memory begins to slip.
I meet people every day who regret not taking the time to engage their relative in meaningful, exploratory conversation about their lives when the opportunity existed. How to Make it HappenAside from initiating a professional personal-history project, just how do you find the time and space to connect with your loved one in a real way? Here are a few ideas:
- Make a date. If it's on your calendar (just like your hair appointment or son's soccer game), then you'll probably make it happen. Going out to breakfast or lunch once a month, for example, is a great tradition to start. You'll both look forward to it, and it will give you time to connect outside of the hustle-and-bustle of holidays and special occasions.
- Break out the photo albums. The next time you visit an older relative, sift through old photo albums together. Images really help to spark long-forgotten memories about life events and special people. You might even consider sitting down with your relative and creating a chronology of old photos, complete with short descriptions that only he/she can provide.
- Invite them to come along! Sometimes, we just can't fit one more thing into your schedule. So find something on your calendar that could include a guest, and ask your loved one to come along. Even if it's just a drive to the airport or a ballet rehearsal, you'll be amazed at what great conversation can take place when you're simply in one another's company.
- Pick up the phone and call. There are always times during the day when a quick phone call is possible - when you're making dinner, cleaning the house, or waiting in the doctor's office. These frequent, short conversations will make it easier for your loved one to share when you have a chance to visit in person.
If you're interested in learning more about how to use one-on-one time with relatives to learn about your family history, this article
is worth a read.