I had a rare online chat with my step-mother on Saturday which led into questions about genealogy and then my great-grandfather and his mysterious life. While my step-mom unapologetically said she wishes she were interested in her ancestry, but she’s not, she very much wants my father to share his stories about our past. She dialed me up and gave the phone to my dad.
My dad and I spoke for about 45 minutes and he recounted stories about my grandfather’s childhood, growing up mostly with a single mom. I typed as quickly as I could while he chattered in a sort of non-linear fashion, thinking of additional points and background stories as he went. As he was telling me the most poignant stories that had been handed down, he remembered that while my grandfather was dying in the hospital, he had taken a tape recorder and recorded their dialogue. I don’t know what they talked about specifically but my dad confessed, “You know… I never listened to that tape.”
I urged him to find it and have it converted to digital format, something that baffles him completely. Instead he got sidetracked again and said, “You know … we want to start cleaning out the house and selling some of this stuff. But it’s probably going to take a long time.”
My father has been plagued with respiratory problems for the past five or more years. I’m fairly convinced it’s from the mold and dust that has accumulated in their stuff. He doesn’t seem able or motivated to have his health problems resolved. Instead he tells me he probably isn’t going to live that much longer – to which I nearly almost always reply, “but what if you do? What if you live to be 100?”
Closer to the point, however, are the stories that my father has been hoarding. He has family genealogy books and albums stored in the house, but his brain is the most cluttered space, crammed full of specific dates, names, places, and other details. I was able to take the information he gave me over the phone, from stories he had not lived himself but had heard from his parents, aunts and uncles, and I could corroborate most of the details using familysearch.org.
He’s unable to write down or record his thoughts in a usable way. I told my step-mom to put him in the car on the way to church, ask him a question, and hit record on a digital recorder. The man is haunted by so many stories that he relives readily, eagerly even, but he’s unable to save them for us. Why hold on to something valuable, only to watch it deteriorate from disuse? Why conjure it up in your mind repeatedly, obsessively, but be unable to materialize the object, to put it in its rightful spot, to store it away or relinquish it totally?