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Sharing memories, sharing lives: preserving family history and sharing memories is a precious gift from one generation to the next.

The latest thing seems to be videotaping one's parents and quizzing them about their lives. My daughter and I thought we had a better idea. For my 65th birthday, I told her, I'd like a notebook with questions that she'd always wanted to ask me about my childhood.

The idea seemed like a winner. After all, how many of us bemoan the fact that we learned little about our parents before they died or became too ill to communicate? My own children ask questions from time to time, though their late father was much better than 1 in going into detail about his upbringing in Rhode Island (but said precious little about his being in a German prison camp during World War II).

I have found that my son's and daughter's eyes glaze over easily when I talk about my Aunt Sarah's habit of asking questions about the one thing you didn't want to talk about, like "So, how is that weight-loss plan coming, dear?" Or Grandma Esther, an otherwise devout and demure type, who embarrassed me in front of my friends when she sang loudly, in her Polish accent, "Where was Moses when the lights went out? Down in the cellar eating sauerkraut."

To my delight, on that birthday my daughter, Becky, presented me with not a Walgreens' special but a thick book she'd put together with care. There were drawings to go with questions such as: What did you read when you were a child? What did you and Auntie Susie (Susie and I have known each other since we were 5) talk about when you got together? What was Sunday like in your house? How did you and your siblings get along?. What did you and your morn fight about? How did you celebrate holidays? This was, I thought, so much better than sitting down at a tape recorder or a video camera and putting together a memento that might be titled, "Where Was Mama When the Lights Went Out?"


What I didn't count on, though, was how hard it would be to answer the questions, what was Sunday like in my house? The fact is that I remember little about Sunday at my house, because I was rarely there. My parents were busy putting food on the table. My life was on the street. There was no such thing as a "play date." Rather there was simply play, from morning till night.

Question: what did my mom and I fight about? How could I tell my daughter that we fought about everything? We fought about my clothes. We fought about my grades, especially when in junior high I somehow managed to fail both sewing and gym class in one semester. "How can someone fail sewing?" she'd yelled. My three siblings and I also fought, particularly the sister nearest my age who, when stuck babysitting for me, threatened to send me to "Bad Girls' School." (Actually, the idea seemed kind of attractive. I was that kind of kid.)

The question that sent me reeling was, "what did you read as a child?" How could I say, "Not much"? My house contained a couple of copies of Reader's Digest and Ladies' Home Journal and maybe a book or two on how to crochet or make a pot roast. My friend Susie and I spent hours on Saturdays at the main library. How could I tell Becky, though, that our favorite room there contained listening booths where we could dance, looking like manic puppets to passers-by, to the latest hits? How could I tell her that my joy in unassigned reading didn't happen till I started college and opened up Albert Camus' The Stranger?.

I guess the memory book that Becky so thoughtfully gave me has had an interesting effect on me. I've realized that questions about childhood can bring up more troubling memories than one would like. Do I tell her that Auntie Susie and I had a big fight in high school over her active social life and my lack of same? (I had no answer for Becky's question "Who was your first date?")


Do I tell her that I envied my cousin Helen Ruth because her mother seemed nicer than mine? Do I tell her that my mother and I really didn't enjoy each other's company until she was in her 70s? That my memories of my father land on an image of his snoring in a chair, exhausted at the end of a day at a low-paying job?

I think the answer to all those questions has to be yes. There has to be a truth somewhere between that gray-haired grandma in those Norman Rockwell pictures, appearing complete with Thanksgiving turkey and beaming children, and the memoir writers who recall dreadful childhoods that make Charles Dickens' visits to his father in the poorhouse look like a walk in the park.

And, believe me, there are happy memories: I remember holiday celebrations with my mother's ten sisters and brothers that featured raucous singing and Uncle Moishe playing his version of Santa: a guy we all called Hanukkah Charlie. I remember the time Aunt Sarah stuck up for me in front of another aunt, my mother's tearful apology to me years after she'd yelled at me about something unimportant, and an English teacher who, despite the lack of books in my home, taught me to write a decent English sentence.

Which leads me to the inevitable question: what will my own children remember about their childhood?

Norman Rockwell Thanksgivings? Doubtful. A turkey brought to the table tougher than shoe leather? Probably.

Jogging the Memory

The secret to having a fulfilling conversation with one's parents or grandparents, either in writing or in person, is to ask questions about specific events. It's difficult to respond to general questions, such as "What was it like growing up in the 1940s?" or "What was your mother like when you were a boy?" Instead, aim for occasions or everyday occurrences that will jog the memory, such as the following examples from my daughter's gift to me of a memory book.

* What was it like being the oldest/youngest/middle child in your family? How did you and you siblings get along?

* What was a typical weekday dimmer like at your house? What kinds of foods did your mother make? What foods did you like? Which did you hate?

* What movies did you like? What television shows?

* What books did you read when you were a kid?

* What kinds of rules did your parents enforce in the household when you were young?

* Did you ever break the rules?

* Tell me about a best friend.

* What were holidays like as you grew up? Thanksgiving? Christmas? What about birthdays?

* What was the happiest memory from your childhood? The saddest?

* Where did you and Dad/Mom meet? Was it love at first sight?

* Tell me what you remember about your wedding.

* Tell me one lesson/thought that you'd like to pass on to the next generation.
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Author:Silverman, Arlene
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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