Time doesn’t have to erase wisdom and memories.
By Don Ray
It’s a phrase I’ll never forget. It was in the first oral history class I took back in 1975 that the instructor, historian David L. Clark, urged us all to sit down with Grandma and Grandpa and record them telling the stories of their lives.
“It’s like a library that’s burning down,” he said. “You have to move fast.”
My own grandmother had died earlier that year — she was the last of my grandparents to die — so I understood the opportunity that I had missed. Indeed, the library was gone. Twenty-two years later, when my mother made the decision to spend her remaining time in home hospice, I made good on my vow to capture on videotape the stories that my sister and I had heard in bits and pieces over the years.
My mother always had a way of talking “baby talk” if I was in her presence when she talk to someone else about me, so
I arranged a “head fake” when it came time to capture her recollections on videotape. One of my former students, David Ritchie, conducted the oral history interview — I operated the camera. Immediately before David began prompting her to talk, I put on big headphones and made it clear to my mother that I would be listening to my favorite Latin music.
“Don’t even bother talking to me,” I warned her. “I won’t be able to hear a thing.”
The plan worked. David listened to her for more than two hours there in the comfort of her apartment in Burbank, Calif. Only once was it clear that she was saying something about me. She gave me that smile as she looked my way. When I didn’t respond at all, she got the message and never looked my way again.
I decided to not watch the interview right away. Less than two years later, the emphysema squeezed the last of the breath out of her. It would be another year before I was ready to watch the video and listen, for the first time, to what she told David during the interview. Read the rest of this entry »