Listening and Leftovers: Redux

by Sarah Henry on November 25, 2011 · 28 comments

in food flotsam & jetsam

(I wrote the post below two years ago but my brother Guy just stumbled across it doing research on our family history. He liked it, I hope you do too, and that it inspires you to listen to a loved one today.)

Florence Marion Henry

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.

Florence Marion Alderton, 1914

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.

My grandmother in Papua New Guinea

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.


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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Penn-Romine November 25, 2011 at 11:31 am

You’re right on the money. I probably know more of our family history than many people do of theirs–we Southerners just love to hash over the family lore–but there are so many things I wish I knew, so many times when I should have been tuned in better. Sometimes I wonder if hypnosis would help me recall those half-heard stories…

Thank you for this lovely piece, Sarah.


Sarah Henry November 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm

What an interesting thought, Carol. Am sure we all heard bits and pieces of family lore over the years. Thanks for weighing in.


Alexandra November 25, 2011 at 3:13 pm

What a terrific idea, and definitely a better way to spend the day after Thanksgiving when the media makes us think everyone shops. I’ve spent the holiday with my son’s family and find myself often sharing, with my granddaughter, stories of her dad’s childhood.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Why Come to Wellfleet in the Fall?


Sarah Henry November 25, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Sweet, Sandy, enjoy.


Kerry Dexter November 26, 2011 at 5:01 am

a fine story and a fine idea, Sarah. several of my friends have become new parents and grandparents this last year, and I was thinking of them as I read. as you know, I am a writer (mainly about music) and this story also reminded me that it’s lovely when people say “I always enjoy talking with you, because you really listen, you really hear me.”
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] and Advent: preparation


Sarah Henry November 26, 2011 at 8:11 am

Good point, Kerry. As I said, everyone likes to feel heard.


Vera Marie Badertscher November 26, 2011 at 5:25 am

Oh this is so sadly true. We think of all these questions we would like to ask when the person is no longer there to answer. I had time while my mother was in the nursing home to “interview” her and note down all her stories. Another helpful thing was taking in her old photo albums and having her identify the people in them. (Most of the photos had stories, too!)
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..Visit the Movie: Shawshank Redemption


Sarah Henry November 26, 2011 at 8:12 am

Great idea about the “visual aid” of photos, Vera, which you point out can prompt so many memories and stories.


Sheryl November 26, 2011 at 9:05 am

I love this idea. So often we get too busy in our lives to pay attention and realize that everyone -especially those who have lived long lives -has a unique story to tell. Storycorps is a wonderful project. Your grandmother sounds like she was an extraordinary and interesting woman.


Sarah Henry November 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Storycorps is a wonderful project, Sheryl, all the more so for its simplicity. I think you would have got a kick out of my grandmother.


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi November 26, 2011 at 10:07 am

Lovely! I’ve heard some humdingers from my grandparents about growing up in the Mississippi delta in the Depression. Riding cows, daring each other to see how long they could hold on to electric fences, all sorts of crazy things plus hearing about how my grandmother ironed her fancy bloomers before she went out dancing. I always loved the idea of that.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Soap Making: Palm Oil-Free Shampoo Bars


Sarah Henry November 26, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Love that detail about the fancy bloomers being iron by a granny who also rides cows and holds on to electric fences. What a hoot your grandmother sounds, Mel.


Kris @ Attainable Sustainable November 26, 2011 at 10:37 am

Though I’ve heard lots of stories, I always wish I’d thought to set the video camera up while the storytelling was happening. Great story. Love granny’s assessment of ‘nipple pink’ as a color.
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..Black Friday Shopping – NOT!


Sarah Henry November 26, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Interesting point, Kris. I know a lot of family members want to capture their aging elders on tape for prosperity or to simply hear their voice after they’ve gone.


Lisa Rogovin November 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Thx for the touching reminder. Happy belated Thanksgiving.


Sarah Henry November 26, 2011 at 3:41 pm

And to you, Lisa. Are you turkeyed out?


Jane Boursaw November 27, 2011 at 11:08 am

Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman. One reason I love family get-togethers is to hear stories from everyone. Love that. And have even managed to get my mom and dad’s stories down on tape (cassette tapes – need to transfer those to digital).
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..The Shawshank Redemption: When Hollywood Comes to Town


Sarah Henry November 28, 2011 at 9:25 am

You’re a step ahead of most folks, Jane. Good on you for gathering your folks’ stories.


Alisa Bowman November 28, 2011 at 11:32 am

One of the most rewarding things I ever did was interview my grandparents and write a book (just for the family) about their lives.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..21 Ways to Give More This Holiday Season – No Box Store Required


Sarah Henry November 28, 2011 at 3:43 pm

And I bet it was wonderful and well received, Alisa. Good for you.


Living Large November 29, 2011 at 5:09 am

I’m so glad you reposted this. I was just thinking of doing a volunteer project going into our local nursing homes and allowing the folks there to tell their stories, which would include any favorite recipes. This could be given to their families. I thought of the project after lamenting this weekend about not having learned to make my mother’s pumpkin pie.


Sarah Henry November 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm

What a lovely idea, LL. Keep me posted if you end up doing it, okay?


merr November 29, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Sharing stories is perhaps one of the best family activities I know. Even when the stories are retold, there is somehow something new even in the retelling…a detail, a feeling, a connection.
merr´s last [type] ..The 5-Question [Author] Interview: James Gough


Sarah Henry December 12, 2011 at 10:40 am

Good point, merr. Sometimes those stories take on a life of their own (beyond their original telling or meaning) too.


MyKidsEatSquid November 30, 2011 at 4:12 am

My brother interviewed my grandfather years ago and videotaped the whole thing–he just opened up and shared stories I’d never heard. But that was in the days of VHS tapes and there’s only one copy that’s somewhere in the family. Good reminder I need to track that down.


Sarah Henry December 12, 2011 at 10:40 am

Please do, MKES. Sounds like a gem worth converting for the digital age.


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