It doesn’t elude me how dense the holidays can be and what an instrumental time this can be for getting to know those we love better. Or, if separated for months at a time, to construct the bonds of relationship.
The man I love is separated, and his ex-wife lives with his son at a great distance. He’s saddened by the distance and has been at odds to deepen the bonds of relationship—“conversation,” he calls it—and one of the methods we’ve examined to do this is the “mutual interview.”
At the end of each visit with his small son, he sets up a camera and puts the boy in the hot seat. He asks him questions about his visit, what they’ve seen and done, and what impressions they’ve had. Asked how he feels about returning to his other home, the boy replies, “happy-sad. I’m sorry to go, but I look forward to seeing my friends.” Soon the son trains the camera on his father. His questions are sometimes silly, sometimes poignant, even hard, and laughter and tenderness and gratitude for their time together fill the frame. I can only imagine how impacting this record will be for son and father over the years.
Reviewing this material later, “happy-sad” is the prevailing sensation. Here we have a document that brings the last visit to life again, with a breath of emotion. It freezes father and son at a particular moment in time and reflects on their closeness, and offers another opportunity, for the father to say some tender things that may be heard again later in the boy’s life, and may acquire new meanings. As the son will continue to visit on holidays, so will we document their “conversation,” as it and their relationship, evolves.
A mother and son plan a trip together in the New Year. She wants to visit her relatives in Siberia; she wants him to go with her. It will bridge their geographic distance to have a project between them. She is eager to share her history, and he loves that she’s asked him.
She works with me to prepare. She brings stories from recordings she’s done with her mother (now deceased) and we analyze her feelings of respect, uncertainty, her lack of confidence to own this story. We find ways to create objective descriptions of the materials, to allow them to speak for themselves, as if in conversation with her. We try to find a hook, something solid and predictable like food and the recipes she loves, to give structure to the story. She isn’t sure of what she sees in the photographs, the recordings, and the journals, and she wonders if she will ever know her mother who lived such a long life but didn’t discuss her feelings of loneliness (suspected) and lack of friendships (documented) while surviving so many wars and fleeing so many countries, while starting over again so many times. She feels elements of those things now too, in her own life, and she works them out in conversation.
She is my mother, and as a personal historian I have the undeniable good fortune of working with her and asking her these questions, even if she responds sometimes with resistance. It’s a complicated privilege, and I wonder if years forward I’ll be wishing I knew my mother better, or if in this unique view of her questioning her own mother’s relationships and path, I get to know her now.
My father, a retired anthropologist, decides to visit his research community fifty years later. He prepares a list of questions for a young man from the village whom he helped learn how to read so many years ago. He thinks of how this story has marked him all these years. We refine his questions so that they are more personal, more searching, to tell a story that is richer in detail and reaches more people. My father recognizes the good he’s done through his career, in entirely personal moments that connect him personally to his work and show others a side of him that touch on his humanity that was perhaps less apparent.
In my nuclear family, we select pictures of our past year to put on a family wall. I take the opportunity to ask for a small commentary on each photograph. Everyone will write descriptions or notes or lists about the image, and our reflections together will create a story. We’ve added this to our tradition of writing down our resolutions. It’s a small uplifting and unifying exercise at year’s end, and it helps us to reflect on our actions and activities, and to think about who we want to be, individually and as a family, in the coming year.
The upside of being separated (as we all are separated by time or space or simply by the existential nature of being distinctly human) and having these end-of-the-year moments together, is that the “conversation” is entirely ours, and between our real selves. This increased, pinpointed intimacy takes the sting off the distance, off the past, and reveals remarkable individuals to each other, without fixed, traditional familial roles. It cuts through the tinsel and the carols, and gets to the heart of the issue: the relationships. We are having a truer conversation than ever before.
This is the final post in the 2015 “Home for the Holidays” series. In post #1, Patricia Charpentier gave us advice for harvesting family stories during the holiday Turkey Talk. In post #2, Steve Pender provided tips for family holiday videos. In post #3 Marjorie Turner Hollman suggested that stories can be great gifts for the grandkids. In Post #4, Martha Humphries gifted us with five easy ways to save family stories at the holidays; post #5 was from Annie Payne with a glimpse of her Aussie Christmas; and post #6 was Sue Hesssel’s Personal Historians Night Before Christmas.
Photo Credits: Silhouette photo by Pedro Venâncio |Unsplash. Note taking photo by Alejandro Escamilla | Unsplash. Both licensed for use via Creative Commons Zero. Photo of Alex’s father from her family’s collection.