What’s Next: The Conversation of a Lifetime
Why you must capture your parents’ or grandparents’ life story
It’s a common regret: I wish I knew more about my parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles’ lives.
Most people only know bits and pieces of their family history. They might know the cursory details of how their parents met or have a general idea of why their parent or grandparent chose the field in which they worked. Rarely do folks know what significant events shaped the lives of their parents or grandparents, and why and how they became the person they are.
Yet later, this is exactly what we wish we knew.
Folks generally don’t become interested in genealogy or family history until they’re in their 50s and 60s, when they have more time to reflect on their family identity. The problem is that by that time, their grandparents and parents have often already passed away or are unable to fully recount their stories.
Because of this, we’re losing generations of stories, and all of the benefits that come with them.
Full disclosure: I run a company that captures the life stories of aging family members and produces them into personal audio documentaries that become family treasures. My interest in this field began when I launched a podcast called “A Life’s Story” that featured the life stories of extraordinary 80- to 100-year-olds who had lived through incredible personal or historic events. Doing the podcast series made me realize that every family has a story worth preserving for their own purposes. I knew this was a service worth providing, and the private audio documentary business was born.
Whether you capture your parents’ or grandparents’ life story our way or another way, the benefits of doing it are many:
1. You honor them. The importance of being listened to cannot be overstated. By using some method to record their life story, you tell a loved one how much they mean to you, and that they will never be forgotten.
Importantly, you bestow this honor at a time in their lives when the world is largely ignoring them. In our youth-oriented culture, entertainment providers, restaurants, consumer products and tech companies have no interest in courting older consumers. It seems the only advertisers that have any interest in older folks are the pharmaceutical companies. Fewer folks strike up a conversation with them in public. This general cultural disregard is not lost on our older family members- they feel it. Recording their life story tells them they are still a person worth knowing and have a life worth honoring.
2. You capture the collective wisdom of your family. Stories of our parents or grandparents provide models of how to go through both good and bad times, as well as how to overcome challenges and face loss. This is wisdom that can only come from folks who have lived long enough to have seen it all.
3. You better understand yourself. As a youngster, a now adult daughter saw her mother defy doctors orders and turn her health around through sheer will and discipline. In the process the mother elevated her entire life. That mother had a grandmother who did something similar in her own life. Now, the daughter knows she comes from a long line of strong, intuitive women. Knowing this, the daughter more readily trusts her instincts, and is more willing to question authority in her own life.
4. It’s healing. One 47-year-old daughter had a decades long estrangement from her father. Even though they had reconnected a few years ago, on some level she was still angry and unsettled. By hearing her father’s entire life story told in context, she was able to better understand what led to the estrangement and was able to let go of much of her anger and confusion.
If your past is something you wish was different, understanding where you come from and what your parents or grandparents were like at your age can be an incredibly eye-opening experience.
5. It’s surprising. You may not realize your aging family member fought an important battle in a war, quit a job in righteous indignation because their boss lied to them, felt their own parent’s resentment or indifference, or reached out to help a parentless child in their neighborhood decades earlier. Lives are complex and full of surprises. You don’t know what life story gems you are missing.
6. Your kids will ask for it one day. My great nephew Hunter was a baby in diapers when my father – his great grandpa – died. Now, at 7 years old he’s asking questions about his great grandpa. We don’t know where this curiosity came from, but we wish we could satisfy it. Wouldn’t have been fantastic to offer Hunter a recording of his great grandpa telling his life story in his own voice? Sadly, we don’t have it.
7. You will crave it one day. You likely have plenty of photos of your parents or grandparents. You probably don’t have their voice preserved in any meaningful way. For anyone that ever clung on to the last voicemail recording of their now gone parent, you know how the sound of their voice deeply touches you in a way nothing else can.
The poet Maya Angelou said “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”
Although I am a broadcaster and professional storyteller, I wasn’t thinking about capturing my parents’ life story when they were still here to tell it. Now, with my line of work at A Life’s Story, I beat myself up for it every day. You have all the time in the world, until suddenly, you don’t.
In my next column, I’ll address how to capture the life stories, both through paid services and DIY.
Leslie Gold is a broadcaster, public speaker, and radio talk show host from NYC known as “The Radiochick”. For more wisdom and to hear their amazing life stories of these extraordinary folks, listen to “A Life’s Story” podcast, on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, and most other podcast platforms. The Life’s Story team also offers for-hire personal audio documentaries to capture forever the life story of your parents or grandparents. Info at www.alifesstory.net