Conversations with the Past

I’m back from visiting my grandparents and I have tons of family tree information, along with pictures of photographs (he wouldn’t let me take his albums so I improvised by snapping pics with my phone), hours of taped conversations, and pages of notes. I also came back with the comforting knowledge that Yes, I do have family roots. And boy do they have stories!

Foolishly, I’ve always compartmentalized my family. Dad and Mom have their roles as parents; Gigi and Grammy have their roles as grandparents. And they’ve seemed happy to let me think this way. Until recently when my grandfather asked me to write his life story.

He spoke to me like an equal for the four days for which I showed up chronically late each day. He referred to himself as Pete, not Gigi, and referred to Grammy as Mary. My dad was called David in our talks. Slowly this person emerged and presented himself to me via jokes, stories, and photographs. Pieces of an elaborate puzzle floated without an anchor.

How did he get from the youngest of thirteen children (a fact I’m still trying to verify since he couldn’t remember all of their names. Regardless, there was at least ten of them); to the smiling, carefree sailor posing with family before shipping off; to wearing a kilt (yep, the Navy promised he’d go places and one of those places was Scotland); to this tall, handsome man in a suit standing in front of his newly built home that he built himself; to a dad who adored his children (the proof is in the pictures); to a grandfather who seemed so stoic only to shed a few layers and reveal a dark humor similar to my own?

Those four short days I spent in a time machine, in a place that isn’t quite the past, but definitely not the present. Not only did I learn about my family tree (which I never imagined to be so large and so full of life), but I learned more about the people who have had a hand in shaping my life. In doing so, I am beginning to learn more about myself.

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Excavating the Past

Recently my 92-year-old grandfather told my parents that he wanted me to write his life story. Living on the other side of the country, I wasn’t in attendance for this revelation, but my mom texted me about it almost immediately. Of course I was thrilled and began planning a short visit home.

It’s now August and I’m entering the final week before I fly home for six days. How do I prepare for this? What (if anything) do I need? Should I have questions ready, or just let him ramble? How emotionally exhausted will we both be at the end of a session? Are just some of the questions swirling in my head right now.

I did what a logical writer (is that an oxymoron?) would do: Posed these questions to my fantastic writer’s group. Their responses and insight were humbling to say the least. Their generosity with their own experiences, their regrets, and their support has been crucial for me in prepping my visit.

Walk around the house with him and note what he looks at or picks up, does it hold a special meaning for him? What are his reactions to the events he’s lived through (at 92, he’s lived through a lot!)? How did he know Grammy was the one (personally, this is one of my favorites and I cannot wait to hear the answer)?

I don’t know much about my grandparents’ lives pre-Dad-being-born. I’ve always been told they don’t remember, or don’t want to remember, their own childhoods. Their parents (my great-grandparents) didn’t want to remember the old country, so nothing is known. I hope to dig deep and discover some roots on my sparse family tree.

In addition to letting him speak without interruption and asking questions here and there to fill gaps, providing him with his own tape recorder to speak when I’m not around was one of the best pieces of advice. To have his (and my grandmother’s) voice recorded so that I can listen to later will be a treasure unto itself.

It’s a big undertaking, and overwhelming when I stop to think about it. Time is not on my side. But I am so very fortunate to have this opportunity and I am going to enjoy every moment leading up to and while I’m there, in their company.

Past Self vs. Future Self

We look to our past to get a sense of who we are. Where we come from. Our genes, our ancestors. But why don’t we look at our present and ask who we want to be. Who are we in this moment? Are we thrill seekers, the introvert gamer, the 9-5er? Or are we somewhere in between? What experiences and how do we react to things make us more of who we are than any family hierarchy.

My friend is addicted to solving the mysteries of her family tree and recently found out her background isn’t what she’s been told for thirty plus years. When she told me, I was stunned. It was like our giant pink balloon had popped and we were left with broken pieces. Until I realized that this piece of knowledge doesn’t change one thing about her or our friendship. She’s still my best friend, she’s still the most beautiful soul you will ever meet.

While I’m not saying it isn’t great to identify with your heritage–because it totally is. Own it! But you shouldn’t let it define you.¬†Let your current actions and your future dreams define you. Who are you today? Who do you want to be tomorrow? And finally, what will you DO right now to be the person you are meant to be?

What I’m reading now: Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman¬†by Alice Steinbach