For someone who is a communications professional, I have not always been the best at keeping in touch with my parents. Once I moved from the Chicago area to the East Coast about 12 years ago, I wrapped myself in the vicissitudes of my daily life and only seemed to remember to call when birthdays or holidays were coming up or I needed a tip on how to adapt a recipe if I was missing an ingredient (my mother is a cook extraordinaire). After all, I knew I'd see them at Christmas and during their annual visit... and that if I ever truly needed them they'd always be there.
My parents, Penny and Bill Bailey
But now that I'm in the midst of my own "mid-life" adult crisis -- out of a job, slogging through a divorce, my own children heading off to or in college -- the importance and value of staying in touch with family is suddenly more immediate, as is the realization that my parents won't always be there. I am 52, and they are now in their 80s. (Just when did THAT happen?!!)
Meanwhile, my travels to the Middle East had brought home to me just how influential my parents had been in shaping the activist I am today. The most common question I receive when I visit Israel or the West Bank, or when I talk about my volunteer work in the States, is "Why are you so passionate about these other people's problems?" At first I didn't know how to answer that question. I'm not Arab. I'm not Muslim or Jewish. I have no "stake' in this conflict. But I was raised to be passionate about human rights, and to do more than just watch from the sidelines. For that I can thank my parents and the example they set through my mother's jobs and both of their volunteer work.
However....I had never really told them that. And, I had a sneaky feeling there was a lot more I should learn from them, soon.
And so it was that when my mother turned 80 last fall, and I was trying to think of a unique gift for a woman who already has enough things, I remembered the interview I'd heard on Democracy Now with Dave Isay on a project called StoryCorps.
In that first interview, Isay was promoting a book he'd written on his pioneering project, and he explains it this way in this opening lines:
“StoryCorps is built on a few basic ideas: that our stories—the stories of everyday people—are as interesting and important as the celebrity stories we’re bombarded with by the media every minute of the day. That if we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder and poetry in the lives and stories of the people all around us. That we all want to know our lives have mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten. That listening is an act of love.”
Basically, StoryCorps is a massive oral history project, focused on ordinary people who often live through extraordinary times. On Democracy Now, Isay described how he got the idea:
"I did a documentary about 15 years ago with two kids growing up in a housing project in Chicago, where I gave them tape recorders and had them record a week in their life. And I saw the license that having this microphone gave these kids to ask their family questions they had never asked before and that the conversations continued long after the tape recorder was turned off. And as their relatives passed away, these tapes became incredibly important to them. So that was one of the main pieces, including walking the footsteps of heroes like Studs Terkel, that led to the creation of StoryCorps."
In October 2003, Isay built a booth in Grand Central terminal in New York City, where people could bring a loved one to record an interview. it’s completely silent. The lights are low. And you sit across from, say, your grandmother for 40 minutes, and you talk. Most people ask the big life questions, like “What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?” or “How do you want to be remembered?” But sometimes they ask about the little, but precious details like “What did your mom sing to you when you were a kid?” At the end of 40 minutes, two CDs are burned. One goes home with you, and the other goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to become part of an oral history of America.
Today, StoryCorps booths are stationed in Lower Manhattan's Foley Square and San Francisco. In addition, mobile booths roam the country. Right now, for instance, the Airstream trailers are visiting Salt Lake City and Asheville, NC.
However, there is another option for everyone else. For $150, you can rent a home recording kit, along with complete instructions. That's what I did, and it was a surprisingly intimate experience. I learned some nuggets of information about my parents -- as people -- I hadn't known before. For instance, my mother grew up during the Great Depression, the daughter of a Methodist minister. I knew that much, but hadn't heard the story about being paid for performing a wedding with a chicken. Or getting her first job on the assembly line at a perfume factory. Or that she had originally gone to college to study chemistry -- and that she was drawn to the subject by a teacher who had made all that mixing of chemicals seem romantic! She discovered later, however, that reality was a bit more dry, and switched to home economics. (Still mixing things....)
But the real surprise was my dad. My mother is the outgoing one of the two, but I had to work a little to get her to elaborate in our interview, to go beyond four- or five-word answers. My dad, however, who is normally rather reserved and preoccupied, began telling these wonderfully detailed stories. All I had to do was sit back and listen. With him, I focused on his recruitment into the Army during World War II. He had been a loner as an adolescent, he remembered, and needed a direction in life. That made him a ripe target for a recruiter and off he went. My dad welcomed going into the Army -- his main concern was whether he would pass the physical! However, by the time he got out, he had had enough. Military life was like living under a dictatorship, and although he didn't see much combat, he had some close calls...Like when one of the ships in his brigade was hit by a submarine while they were crossing the English Channel to join the attack, and it went down -- killing all 800 on board. At that time, World War II was considered a "good war" -- even the drop of the first atom bomb by the United States was considered a good thing, because it signalled the end. But since then, my dad has filled in the gaps in the information he had at the time, and he's seen a string of other wars come and go --Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, etc.... None of them could be justified so cleanly or fairly. And he has now come to believe that a better way to resolve our conflicts must be found if we are to survive with our humanity intact.
My dad went on to study art using the GI Bill, and met my mother through a blind date -- actually, his first date. (!!!) And the rest, as they say, is history. Well, actually, I'd like to keep wandering down memory land and capturing more of their recollections on tape. What a wonderful keepsake to pass down to my children, and their children...
And for me to keep, just for me.