My mother taught me the value of humor, especially when it comes to laughing at yourself,” my father told a group of 80 family members and friends. Was this a memorial service? In a way, it was—with one exception: my dad’s mother was sitting in the front, alive and well. And smiling even.
The occasion was my grandmother’s 80th birthday party. Family and friends from all corners of the globe had gathered to celebrate her life—one of my cousins flew in from France, another was there from Nepal, and others had traveled from all over the United States. Four generations were represented, from my grandmother on down to her great-grandson. My grandmother’s oldest living school friend was even able to make it.
The last time I had seen many of these people was at my grandfather’s memorial service several years ago. At his service, I was moved to hear their stories about my grandfather and how much he meant to them. Of course, the stories would have meant even more if my grandfather had been there to hear how much he was loved and appreciated.
But this time, at my grandmother’s party, things were different: we were reveling in sharing our stories of and love for this amazing person—who had made such a difference in all our lives—while she is still with us.
Our immediate family acted as hosts and hostesses, greeting partygoers and helping them answer questions to the “Did-you-know-this-about-Jean?” quiz that served as an icebreaker. Before long, the stories were flowing. “Did you know Jean played the piano?” I overheard one friend ask another. “Hmmm, that must have been before she got arthritis,” the other replied. “Actually, she used to make up songs on the piano for me when I was a little girl,” I interjected. “Once when I was five, I pointed to a picture in a book of Christmas carols and asked her to play it. She proceeded to play and sing a festive and fun song that did indeed match that picture, and I loved it—not knowing at the time that she had made it up on the spot.”
My grandmother’s friends who didn’t know each other previously were chatting with one another lightheartedly. My grandmother and her oldest friend were giggling like schoolgirls. In place of tears streaming down our faces, like at my grandfather’s memorial service, there were smiles as we moved about the room. And when it came time to sing some of my grandmother’s favorite songs, it was done with merriment rather than sadness and regret.
My grandmother’s one birthday request, besides having all her children, grandchildren, and one great-grandchild present, was to have photographs taken of the whole family on this happy occasion. Since the photos don’t tell the whole story, though, I have decided to take this one step further by working on an oral history of our family, beginning with stories about my grandmother as well as stories told by her. This way we can preserve a part of this day that was spent celebrating her life. And we can pass this celebration of both my grandmother and her family on to generations who have yet to be born.
At my grandmother’s party, I learned things about her that I never knew—like, for example, that she had driven her three young boys across the country by herself when my grandfather was across the ocean flying on missions for the Air Force. Around the time of my grandfather’s memorial service, I had learned a lot of interesting things about him, too. For instance, I knew before that he had flown in three wars, but I didn’t know any of the specifics. After he died, I found out that he had received many medals and had rescued a great number of people. I still don’t know, though, what my grandfather felt about his experiences: he must have been scared during wartime. How did he deal with that? How did serving in each of these wars change him as a person? He never offered this information, and I never asked.
But I still have the chance to ask my grandmother about her life, her feelings, her fears and her dreams. There are so many things to learn from her: How did she handle questions from her children about their father during wartime? How did she handle her own fears about whether or not her husband would return each time he had to leave? What were her dreams when she was younger? What are they now?
Often we see the people we love on a regular basis and take them for granted because they’re always there. We get into a routine of talking about the weather, what we did yesterday, or who won the baseball game. But do we really know each other? You can always make the first move to find out. Unconditional love is a wonderful thing, but taking a step further by truly getting to know someone you love is a way to honor both that person and the relationship you have with them. I’m excited to begin my project of interviewing and tape-recording everyone in my family—it will help me get to know them all better. After I’ve attained a substantial collection of stories from and about our family, I’ll have the tape made into a CD and will give a copy to each member of our family to keep.
I’m starting with my grandmother.