A few months ago I asked my grandparents to tell me some of their old stories. I can’t say exactly what made me think to ask, though knowing them has always been important to me. I’ve never seemed to have the time.
There was always some good reason not to call my grandmother or something more important than asking my grandfather what he remembered of his grandfather.
Then, all of the sudden, for no reason at all, it seemed like the most important thing in the world. I called and asked them simple questions with a pen in hand and no idea what I was going to do with pages and pages full of stories. When they came to visit, I recorded them remembering aloud things that I hadn’t heard before. One question seemed to lead to another until I felt like the people they were describing were people I had known.
Then they left and I sat with my notebook full of words and a recorder full of their voices and I thought, “Ok, genius, now what?”
The obvious solution was staring me in the face. I’m a writer. A writer who was just handed stories about people she loved and knew, about people she loved and never met.
I sat down at my desk and began writing. Soon after, my oldest walked over to sit beside me. Tapping his fingers lightly on the back of my chair he asked, “What are you doing?”
I told him that I was writing down stories of people he was related to so that one day he could read them and give them to his children to read. One day. Not today.
Can you tell me one now?” he asked.
Of course,” I told him. I hadn’t thought of that.
Flipping through the stacks of papers wondering where to start I asked him, “Have I ever told you about your MawMaw Lena?”
He shook his head no.
I thought that he had to be wrong. Certainly I’d told him about my great grandmother. She meant so much to me. She was strong and brave. A presence I still feel very much with me during times of trouble and pain. How could I never have told him who she was?
Then I realized that even I hadn’t known her very long. She died when I was a little girl. I knew her from stories told to me by my father and grandmother.
So I told him all about her. The next day I moved on to my great grandfather. The day after to another, and another.
The other night before bed he asked me to tell him about “MawMaw,” then added her to his prayers before he went to sleep. All of the sudden, she meant something to him, too.
And just as sudden, it was so very clear to me. The time is now.
Writing stories down for some far off day in the future means nothing if that’s all we do. We have to write them on the hearts of our children today. If we hold onto the stories we have been told, they will disappear with us. Their lessons and their beauty will be forgotten. If we remember them daily, if we tell our children tales of our grandparents and their grandparents, if we invite our ancestors into our life then our descendants will know them as we know them. They will live within them and their experiences will teach and guide them.
One day the stories may become only fragments of what they were, with names forgotten and dates long gone, but their essence will remain.
I believe we honor those we remember.
And by remembering them, we tell the pages of history that those who have come before us won’t be resigned to names and dates on headstones chiseled only to fade. We assure those we have loved and lost that even if the only place they remain is in the hearts of our children, they will live on forever.
For more on grandparents, check out Wendy Mogel’s tips for teaching kids to respect their grandparents, the story of a grandmother and Jewish knitting, and what it’s like to raise children without your own mother around.