Monday, May 14, 2012

Older folks have better stories

Jilda's Grandparents
Mamie and Johnny
Facebook goes public in a few weeks, which means another 20-something tech guru will become a multibillionaire. 
All the major news sources are agog with stories, and writers are clamoring to interview Mark Zuckerberg. Well, not me.
To be honest, I could care less about what he has to say. Maybe we could talk when he’s old enough to shave. I’m much more interested in hearing what the folks who’ve been around for a while have to say.
It’s been my experience that even people who’ve not been in the limelight or in the headlines have interesting stories if you can coax it out of them.
The best stories I’m hearing today are from people who have socks older than Mark Zuckerberg — people who’ve lived through wars, recessions, depressions, poverty and losses that would leave most of us stunned. 
Several years ago, I bought a hand-held recorder when they first came out. I wanted a video camera, but they were still as big as chifforobes and cost more than a new truck. 
I used the recorder to interview my older family, friends and neighbors to document their stories before it was too late. The stories were rich with historic detail and gave me a sense of what it was like growing up in their time. Their stories were remarkable.
My grandmother Willie Watson told me how she and my grandfather came to be married. She told me about their life together and how Pap fed the family during hard times by making and selling wild-cat whiskey.
I learned how my dad’s sister Christine kept Pap out of jail when law enforcement raided their house in the wee morning hours. Aunt Christine was only about 5 years old at the time, and she stumbled into the kitchen, wiping sleep from her eyes and sat on a butter churn to watch the house being ransacked by lawmen.
After a while, the officers left without finding anything. Pap had hidden the whiskey in the butter churn, on which Aunt Christine had been sitting.
I recorded these stories long before I became a writer, but I knew deep down that they were important.
Each day when I read the obits and see people in their 80s and 90s who’ve died, I wonder how many remarkable stories we’ve lost forever. Stories of success, stories of survival, of history, stories about life.
Everybody has a story to tell and with today’s modern technology, it’s a shame that more of these stories are not being captured. I encourage anyone reading this to consider taking a video camera on their next visit to grandma and grandpa’s house and spend some time talking about their life. 
Most of the time, it doesn’t take a lot of prodding. Just turn on the camera (or recorder), and ask how they met, what was their first car, or where they went on their honeymoon. I can promise you that one day you will thank me.
So, good luck to Mark on his IPO, and I’m happy for those writers who have the good fortune to interview him while he’s riding high, but I’d prefer to talk to him in 30 years to see if he has anything really interesting to say.


  1. Actually I learned that lesson myself in the last 5 or 6 years of taking care of my 86 year old mom. And sadly, the stories of our elders can be lost even without death ... my mom has dementia.

    And I would propose an extension of this topic ... how hard it is to live each day ... each minute for some elderly. The disability, pain, and loss that elderly routinely experience at the end of life ... and yet they continue to move forward with living generally without complaint.

    Lets see how well our young multimillionaire does in 40 or 50 years when the world looks the other way.

    Hopefully he will be bright enough now to build the kind of relationships that will support him during those years when money is useless against the march of time.

  2. It would be interesting to find out in 30 years just how he has used all that money to help others.

  3. I'm so glad that we took the time to "interview" my grandpa before he died back in 1977. We learned such fascinating things, and his story gave us a peek into his harsh childhood. It still amazes me that a boy who was shown no parental love during his childhood could grow up into such a loving father and grandfather. Obviously the skills were inborn. We did the same with my grandmother and so now we have many many prized life stories.

  4. I love to read and listen to the stories of older people's lives. There is so much to learn from them.

  5. When I was a reporter I learned that even the most nondescript person has a story to tell.


  6. Cool post :-) I just wish that I had written or recorded more stories from my great grandfather - he lived to be 103, and did everything from drink homemade moonshine to chasing down an escaped bull to building coffins during the flu epidemic.

  7. How fortunate that you got out there with the camera. Wish I had been quicker on the draw.

    Maybe we all should start visiting the nursing homes and document those stories. Those are the best view of history.


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