I can’t remember what got me thinking about it, but about two years ago I started wanting to do audio interviews with my parents about their lives. They’d talked to my brother and I about their childhoods before, their parents, their jobs, hobbies, and about parenthood. There were other things they talked about obliquely, or not at all, like their divorce. There were the details of their lives that bored us, the stories they repeated ad nauseam, and then there were things they never bothered to articulate because they were so far in the past or trivial.
Parents. They can drive you nuts, amirite? They’re just so…inescapable. Was I looking forward to prompting some of the same old stories for the umpteenth time? I found that I was. My brother and I are fortunate to have extremely loving, supportive, and likable parents. Both in their mid-sixties, they’re still active and youthful. Mom is a fan of South Park and Amy Schumer and dad was the surprise guest at my brother’s bachelor party earlier this year. But even the best of parents must surely wear on the most doting of children, and wear on me they did, especially in high school, when I what I wanted most was to be left alone.
As children, our parents were the most important people in the lives of my brother and me. Our adolescent affection for them probably lasted longer than it does for most kids. I remember one time when I was about 13 walking down the street with my dad and holding his hand as we passed two popular girls from my class. They saw us, smiled, said hi, and surely chuckled or at least gave one another a little eyebrow raise after we’d passed. It didn’t occur to me until they saw us that I probably looked pretty uncool, and I think that was the last time I held my dad’s hand in public. It was around this time, probably even years before, that I started to make larger parts of myself unavailable to them. Of course they’d already made parts of themselves unavailable to us, but I didn’t know it, or didn’t care. For example my brother and I didn’t always know when they were unhappy; they didn’t want us to worry about them.
About 3 years ago I visited a friend living in Brussels and we took a weekend trip to Amsterdam. It was a fantastic trip, which included lots of writing time, site-seeing, poor French, code words, and, in one instance, an inebriated viewing of Downton Abbey. (Pro-tip: Downton Abbey becomes exceedingly hard to follow while under the influence.) The most somber portion of our trip was our tour of the Anne Frank house, and the most evocative and emotional moment of the tour for me came from watching a video of Anne’s father, Otto.
Otto was the sole family survivor following the holocaust, and the sentiment he expresses in the video, that most parents don’t really know their children, struck me as particularly painful. Through Anne’s diary, Otto was given extraordinary access to his daughter’s private life and thoughts, and one of the great tragedies (and gifts, I suppose) of the diary is how he came to know her more intimately after she was lost to him.
After the tour, I began to think about the ways in which my parents and I don’t know each other. Inspired by the tour, and with a healthy affection for NPR and audio podcasts, I floated the idea to my parents and bought an audio recorder. (I didn’t own a smartphone at the time, but I imagine the Voice Memo feature on my phone would’ve done the job just fine.) I took about half of the questions from StoryCorps’s great questions website. The rest I made up from details I already knew about my parents’ lives. I tried to divide the interview sections into 20-year increments, and then there was a wrap-up section that had general questions that didn’t fit into a specific time frame. The list of questions filled about 4 double-spaced pages. I figured each interview would last about 3 hours. They were closer to 5. Here are some of the things I asked:
- Tell me what you know about your parents from before you were born.
- What was your relationship like with them?
- When you were a kid, what did you think your life would be like when you were older?
- How has being a parent changed you?
- What have you enjoyed most about your career?
- Are there pieces of art, like movies, books, or music, that have always stayed with you? What are they and what about them is so meaningful to you?
- What are some of your biggest regrets?
- Are there things in our family you think we make an effort to not talk about?
- What advice would you give your 30-year-old self if you could?
Dad’s interview came second, and at the end we just started listing some of the random memories that came to our mind. This wasn’t originally part of my agenda, but I liked it so much that I went back and did it with mom.
The act of conducting these interviews was more stressful than I anticipated. Parts of the conversations were intense or uncomfortable. The conversations also commanded focused attention. After an hour or two, I found that my shoulders and neck were extremely tense. I had a migraine the night following my mom’s interview, and she had a sympathy migraine.
I imagined after we went through this exercise that I would know them better. The thing is I feel like my brother and I already know our parents pretty well, and while the interviews did touch on things we’d never talked about before, and explored the familiar in greater depth, I feel I can only claim to know my parents 1-2% better, but that feels significant. Even momentous.
This, or something like it, is a thing you should do. Photographs and home movies provide only snapshots. They are immediate and present, but also isolated and fleeting. They miss the larger stories of history and identity. Interviews are something different. They are a zoom-out of the camera lens, the DVD commentary. They capture mom and dad’s attempts to string all of those individual moments together, to make sense of them. Rather than show a moment from their lives, they share the story of how mom and dad feel about those lives. Imagine a great conversation with someone you love, something wide-ranging and personal, and imagine how nice it would be to be able to relive that, word-for-word, whenever you’d like. Though my parents will never be fully knowable to me, just as I will never be fully knowable to them, the moments in which we reveal ourselves to each other are potent and lasting.