The holidays are a time for ritual gatherings. Families get together, eat, and drink and share Hanukah or Christmas meals. Along with the potato latkes or the Christmas cookies you make year after year, there are older family members who sometimes tell the same story over and over. This drives some crazy, or they just write it off to that dotty Aunt Kate and repair straight to the kitchen. Or they say to themselves, Mom can’t help herself, or Dad’s a little bonkers, so I have to hear his war story again. Think again—these stories just might be of value to your family and your own grandchildren, and the holidays are a perfect time to capture the old family tales.
Why? you say. It’s enough that I have to listen to Mom repeat herself. What you might be able to secure, if you as a family decide to really listen and ask questions, is a part of your family history, whose narrator is fading. Old age is a time of reviewing your life, playing that movie for yourself and others. The story is sometimes really heroic.
My late dad, for instance, was a prisoner of war in Germany in World War II. My grandson Joseph loves to hear my father’s war stories. He’s 10 years old and fabulous audience for the account of how my dad’s plane crashed over Poland, his capture and imprisonment, how Patton liberated his prison camp after the prisoners had burnt everything that was burnable, having been abandoned at the end by the Germans, who were fleeing the Russians. Joseph just loves this story.
At times these tales can focus on the mundane—how the holiday was spent when they were a kid. My dad loves to tell the story of how his mother, an orphan because of the flu epidemic at the turn of century, was raised by man called the Grossfather and his family. On holidays they killed their own turkey, which they raised in their 1910 Philadelphia basement. As a kid, my dad went to the Grossfathers’ for Christmas and Thanksgiving with my grandmother, and went downstairs to visit the soon-to-be-eaten turkey. Joseph and Julia, my grandchildren, love this story, just as my brother and I did when we were kids in the 1950s.
At times older people use stories to deal with loss. Loss is a constant companion of the old. Elders lose spouses, friends, and roles, homes and treasured items that they pass on to you. This holiday season might be a time to have them tell you the story about some of those tsotchkes or valuable knickknacks. Maybe it’s your mom’s Santa collection or dreidl, still kept lovingly in her home, the customary gathering place for the holiday dinner. Maybe it’s a Christmas ornament. I have a few ornaments made in Germany that were my mom’s, given to her by her grandfather Wilhelm Remer, who came from Germany to Missouri at the age of four in 1867. After my mother died, I put them on my Christmas tree. Maybe you’re in your parents’ house, and your dad is sitting in a chair that his mother gave to him. We have two chairs from my 92-year-old mother-in-law, Becca.
She told us the story of how both chairs were in her house in Casper, Wyoming. The rocking chair, made of mahogany, was “Mama’s and the wingback-channeled chair was Papa’s.” These chairs had a story in them, where the family had lived, who used them, how Becca got them. She received the chairs from her mom when her mother moved in with her in Riverside, California, in the ’50s. We received the chairs when she moved in with us in the late ’90s. Furniture is a chronology of family transitions and family tales.
Reminiscence isn’t new. Before the printing press, oral stories of elders and bards were how history was passed on. Oral storytellers gave us the Odyssey and other heroic tales. History still exists in your family, and Ulysses or Penelope might be sitting in your living room, or you in theirs, this holiday season. You listen to reminiscence on the radio. If you are an NPR fan, and I am, listening to Ira Glass’s An American Life lets you hear folks reminiscing about something that happened in their life. It’s an oral story that radio passes down to you.
Here are some tips to use if you want to capture these family stories during this holiday season—a perfect time to do this. Use empathetic listening if you can. Of course you can’t make the kids do this, but make all the messages you are giving the older person—your tone, how fast you speak, how you are sitting—make them say, “I want to listen to you.” Ask questions that prompt the story but don’t make judgments. If you are going to record the family tale, do it in a way that doesn’t distract or stop the older person from talking. Start somewhere. If your mom or aunt isn’t going to tell stories on their own, start the story and see if they will follow along. “That chair you are sitting in, where did you get it, Mom?” Pick an ornament off the Christmas tree and show it to your dad to see if he can tell you its story.
Reminiscence is sparked by the senses, and buried memories flow into our brains. That’s why the holidays are a perfect time to have your older family members share stories with you. The sense of taste spurs memories. Just think of that pie that tasted a lot like your mom’s. On holidays we serve ritual foods, so the foods themselves served over and over can provoke memories in an older person’s mind. Smell brings back memories. When my granddaughter Julia was 14 she was ace woodshop student. She said she smelled pine in the woodshop last week and it reminded her of the smell of Christmas. When we smell the same foods cooking that we knew in the past, when the whiff of holiday candles or a tree hits our nose, old memories are jarred loose. Sound sets us to thinking, and our minds whirl back to places we have been with just the beginning of one song. I played Frank Sinatra for my late dad every morning when the care provider or I got him up and dressed. He recalled every word of every song and was transported back to a happier time, which threw him into the present a happier 87-year-old. On the holidays we play ritual songs that spur our memories.
If you are into scrapbooking, this might be a time to take all those family pictures, buy a scrapbook, and as you show your older parent the pictures over the holiday, write down the stories that go with each picture. It will end up a treasure that you would not be able to re-create—life is fleeting and so are the older people in your family. You can make a Shutterfly photo album or try any of these ideas on Legacy.com .
Have a great holiday season and capitalize on those memories. Remember they are fading, as are the older folks in your life.