Listening & Leftovers

by Sarah Henry on November 27, 2009 · 4 comments

in food flotsam & jetsam

This I believe: Everyone has as story to tell. So, today with a fridge full of leftovers, there’s plenty of time to step away from the kitchen to sit down with someone you love to hear a tale or two.

The Storycorps Project heard on National Public Radio, the people who brought us the book, Listening is an Act of Love, encourages all of us to start a new holiday tradition the day after Thanksgiving–and it doesn’t cost a cent. All you need for the National Day of Listening is a notebook or recording device so you can document an in-depth conversation with a family member or friend over an hour or so — a lot less time than it takes to cook a turkey.

In both my professional and personal experience, people have a yearning to be heard. Given half a chance they’ll bend your ear, tell you their secrets, or reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly. So I doubt you’ll be sorry you took time to talk with a relative to learn more about his or her life. But you may regret not doing so.

I know I do.  In my final year at university I had to conduct an oral history for a class assignment and I chose to interview my paternal grandmother. We adored each other in the uncomplicated way that grandchild and grandparent do. She religiously read the student newspaper I wrote for, offering gentle but pointed critiques: “There is no such color as nipple pink and even if there was you have no business using such a term.” When her eyes started to fail she got books and magazines on tape. I can still remember sitting on her bed as we listened to an issue of Newsweek; she liked to keep up on and discuss current events. She kept a poem I’d written about her when I was 8.

But when the day arrived for our interview Gran called to reschedule; it was too rainy and she worried about me, a relatively new driver, navigating the then-treacherous windy roads that led to her home, about 90 minutes outside of Sydney.  The deadline for the assignment loomed so I interviewed somebody else (I don’t recall who) and I never did have that discussion with my grandmother.

I’m fortunate that I know the broad strokes of her life: Born Florence Marion Alderton on May 3, 1900, she grew up in a big clan in a lovely, leafy, waterfront area of Sydney. She went on to become one of the first female pharmacists in the state of New South Wales. She married my surgeon grandfather, Dudley de la Force Henry, just shy of her 29th birthday; the two met when Gran went to work at Grandpa’s practice. And, of course, she gave birth to my Dad, her only child.

In the early 1940s, she served as a driver for longtime parliamentarian Sir Earle Page, a relative who was very briefly (we’re talking 20 days) Prime Minister of Australia. In the early 1970s — in her 70s — she spent a year in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where my grandfather provided medical assistance. An avid gardener (she won awards for her roses and camellias), horrible cook (instant mashed potato…need I say more?), and keen conversationalist (always happy to have a chat over a cuppa). That was my Granny Henry.

But there are many questions I’d have liked to ask her if we’d kept our appointment. What was it like growing up in the Depression? How did the two World Wars impact her life? How was it as a young, professional woman in a male dominated field? What did my dad like to do as a little boy? How was it chauffeuring a politician? Did she want more than one child? What was it like living in PNG?  What were her greatest joys, sorrows, secrets, good deeds, missteps, and regrets? What life lessons did she want to pass on?

That opportunity is lost to me now; my grandmother died two years after I moved to America. So my suggestion, dear readers, as you contemplate how to spend your post Thanksgiving feast day, is to settle in somewhere comfy, perhaps with a slice of pie or a cup of tea, and let a loved one do the talking.

I leave you with an insight gleaned from Listening is an Act of Love that’s bound to have you searching for pen & paper or batteries:

Be curious and keep and open heart. Great things will happen.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cheryl@5secondrule November 28, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Oh, Sarah, I’m so glad you reminded me of the StoryCorps project. We actually did this with our kids last year and it was a wonderful exercise to have both them, and us, on tape. Of course, now I have to remember what we did with the recording. I’m sure it’s on the computer somewhere…

And your grandmother sounds like a fireball. Even just writing down your memories of her in this space is a way of honoring her life.

I’m telling my husband now that tomorrow we need to do another recording. Thanks for this reminder.

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Sarah Henry November 30, 2009 at 8:27 pm

And I’m so glad, Cheryl, that you point out this is a wonderful exercise to do with your children as well. (Ask a young one for a favorite food memory; you’ll likely be enchanted by the answer.)

Now, I should just take my own advice and do just that with my own son. So, thank you, for the reminder.

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Anna December 3, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Nice. Maybe I’ll visit my mother tomorrow. I actually meant to phone her yesterday. Yesterday was her own (now passed) mother’s birthday. I’m sure she was lonely.

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