Editor’s Note: Jeanne Bonner is a writer, editor and literary translator. Her writing has been published by The New York Times, NPR, Delta Sky Magazine and CNN. She teaches writing in Connecticut. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I have a question for my father so I jot it down on a postcard. I figured it would be a new way to communicate. When I visit my parents, who are in their 80s, two weeks later at their home in New Jersey last fall, I say excitedly to dad, “Did you get my postcard? What is your favorite piece of music?”
My father listened to music when I was growing up like some fathers watch the game, or consult the box scores in the newspaper. The stereo was always on. He didn’t play any instruments but had an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music and jazz. He turned me onto WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station so I could hear Phil Schaap conducting marathon birthday shows about the great Jazz artists. He and my mother traveled to Vienna one year to attend the celebrated New Year’s Concert to hear classical music by the Vienna Philharmonic. And they had a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera in New York when I was a teenager. On the wall of his den to this day, he has a poster of the iconic Art Kane photo “A Great Day in Harlem,” showing a gathering of the most important Jazz musicians in 1958.
Yet when I pressed him about his favorite piece of music late last year – was it something from Brahms? Was it something Andrés Segovia had played? – he replied somewhat foggily, “I don’t know.”
Until last February, he would have regaled me with a boastful tale about some arcane piece of music he adored. But complications from blood cancer last spring have left him a shadow of the fearsome, energetic engineer with a penchant for debating, arguing, lecturing, that he once was.
Now everything has changed, and I find myself racing against the clock – of age and a deadly pandemic that has left my parents even more vulnerable – to record bits of my parents’ childhoods.
Coincidentally, during this pandemic year, I’ve split my time between caring for my father and teaching college courses in writing that emphasize telling personal stories about our histories.
Spending time with him has revealed how much I don’t know about a man I consider my doppelganger and whom I can quote. I find it mildly unsettling that there are so many things I don’t know about a man I thought I knew so well. Details, like his favorite music, seem so important to find out now, to preserve and pass down. Perhaps, as is often the case, that small footnote could awaken a deeper understanding – and appreciation – of a character trait in future descendants. Teaching courses on memoir and literary journalism has shown me the power of using journalism skills to investigate our roots. And both experiences have taught me that I will never know enough about where I came from, and all the things that happened to create my life as I know it.
But I better get going right now. In fact, we all should. As I’ve told my students, no moment is lost when you’re discovering what brought you – yes, you – to this point in your life. And that’s what family history is: The story of how we got here.
I encouraged my students to learn the story of their families for major course projects. When did your family arrive in America? What drove them here? Who was left behind and why? Where did they settle here and what work have they done? I told them they would never regret the time they took to learn about their parents and grandparents.
Of course, teachers soon learn they must practice what they preach. What was my family history? The course pushed me to accelerate my journey into researching my family. I knew where my father’s family originated in Ireland – I had visited the town, in County Donegal – but there was so much I didn’t know about his family and my mother’s. Luckily, just before the course began, I had started searching for the obituary of an uncle who died in a car accident decades before I was born. He was my mother’s brother and had the same name as my maternal grandfather, and as such, in the course of doing online research one day, I unwittingly discovered that my grandfather, Dr. Leslie Tisdall, had been quoted in an article in The New York Times in connection with his wartime work overseeing the blood supply for the US Army. There’s so much there that’s tantalizing about that to me personally; he had a critical job during the war, for example, and also, he was important enough to be quoted in the newspaper that I’ve read religiously since childhood and which my parents referenced continuously when we were growing up. What else don’t I know? And how much time do I have left to find out?
When we gathered for a pared-down Thanksgiving dinner last November in New Jersey, I seized the opportunity to make recordings with my parents. After we cleared the turkey, I took my phone out of my purse, pressed record and began asking questions. After a year of family illness and national upheaval, the move immediately enlivened the quieter and somewhat somber moment. Sitting in her usual spot at the table, my mother declared that her favorite book growing up was “Little Women” – information I don’t ever recall hearing – and then another little tidbit emerged that I may have heard when I was growing up but which previously never had much meaning to make it stick: My grandfather was an only child. So is my 8-year-old son, Leo. That may sound like small ball, but I grew up one of four girls, so navigating the world of only children is new. Yet Grandpa Tisdall was an only child, a successful, warmhearted, wonderful only child. I love the idea that my grandfather and the great-grandson he never knew have something in common.
Of course, this information offers limited consolation because I have no recordings or videos of him; he died in 1995 at the age of 87, when I was 22. I’ve run into the same issue with my beloved grandmother, his wife, who inspired my most feminist ways. She used to say, “Jeanne Marie, you have to train your man.” While she sewed on the couch by the window in the living room at their lake house, she would dispense this piece of advice, even when I was 12 or 13 – and didn’t have a man. No matter. I lapped up her instructions. But what else did she say? I find myself trying to piece together memories of her. She also died when I was 22. How did her voice sound? And her laugh – which, when you could coax it out of her, you felt like you’d struck gold. In that same conversation, my mother shared another piece of information that, again, could not have been news to me but struck a chord, since suddenly my brain is tuned to the family history channel and I am greedily hunting for clues. Namely, that my grandmother’s mother had died during childbirth. How that must have shaped her – and shaped the mother she was to my mother.
Many Americans have become interested in genealogy, tracing their family trees as a hobby. That is a noble pursuit and of a piece with researching family history. People have also spent money on DNA tests that reveal their heritage.
But what I am talking about is more akin to writing a research paper – one that would include examining primary documents and conducting interviews – simply with the focus being on your family, instead of an academic subject. Find the letters your grandfather sent to your grandmother when they were courting. Locate newspaper articles about your uncle. Visit old neighborhoods and get in touch with alumni associations.
And while there are companies willing to sign you up for paid memberships, there are also free resources to help you figure out how to conduct interviews with family members (it helps to know how to ask the right questions to get to the key information). UCLA, for example, has an online guide to preparing and conducting family interviews.
Gathering our family histories is a great equalizer. Money and status don’t matter in this arena. No one doesn’t have a story to tell – even if that story includes stretches of poverty or persecution, no detail is disqualifying. No have-nots here. And no one’s family history, arguably, is more interesting than another’s. Indeed, people who came up in hardscrabble ways have fascinating stories to tell.
My father, who was one of six children, has always joyfully exclaimed that his mother didn’t give birth to him in a hospital – but rather on the kitchen table in 1936, amid the Great Depression. This tale was particularly entertaining whenever we found ourselves in that very kitchen having a meal as part of a holiday celebration or family get-together. He would always quickly add, “They cleaned the table, of course.” His mother died shortly after I was born, and secretly left behind thousands of dollars she’d been hoarding in her clothes closet. This was an unexpected windfall for my grandfather, after years of living modestly.
We have become a nation that binge-watches and binge-reads. Maybe we should begin binge-researching. Binge-recording. We could kick off a binge of collecting documents and conducting interviews. We could find out our parents’ favorite music, the No. 1 song the year they got married or the stories making headlines on the day they were born. It wouldn’t be a bad way to ride out the rest of the pandemic.