Had he lived, my father would have been 95 years old next week. As I’ve mentioned before, he died when I was 25 and my sister was 23. Of course, I think about him a lot, but especially around his birthday, and I am filled with regret that I didn’t get a chance to learn about him more. You just take for granted that your loved ones will be around for a long time; after all, my great aunt Bessie and my maternal grandfather outlived my dad. But Dad, being the most interesting person that he was, left before I could pick his brain. When he died, my sister Joy and I were just coming into full adulthood ourselves, and though Joy did enjoy some time working with Dad on some genealogy research, we never did get to spend the quality adult time that kids crave with their parents, when parent and child can join as equals.
For those of you who still have loved ones or close family friends who are getting on in years, now is the time to “pick their brains.” Some people do this in a documentation form, either videotaping/audio taping an interview, or having the older person write down some of their thoughts. Some, of course, just sit down and talk.
If you’re lucky, the elderly person will want to talk. Some, like my mom, become kind of uncomfortable discussing much beyond relating what she had for dinner, what her weather is like, and so on. Occasionally, she will come up with a childhood story, but sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.
Here is a conversation I’d have with my dad today: Tell me some stories of when you were growing up. What kind of games did you play? What kind of books did you read? What was an average day like for you? How did you handle being an only child? What were your favorite and least favorite parts of school? What kind of courses did you take? Do you feel you made the right career choice? What are the most favorite and least favorite parts of your job? If you had been able to go to college, what would have been your concentration of study? How did you feel when you first became a parent unexpectedly after 12 years of marriage? You had 2 girls; did you ever wish for a boy too? What were your greatest fears and worries? What would you do over if you could? What is some wisdom you could share about marriage? How did you come into your faith? Are there parts of your belief system you question, or have curiosity about? What was daily life like during World War II? The Great Depression? How were you treated in the army when others learned you were a pacifist? What did you never learn or do that you wished you had? What is your greatest disappointment? Tell me more details and stories from the traveling you and Mom did before you had kids. What were the difficulties in having your elderly, sick mother living in our house when Joy and I were growing up? What are your ideas about death and heaven? What important ideas and values do you want to make sure to pass on to future generations? How does one best handle the aging process? Why do you consider yourself to have always been a “maverick?”
Through Joy’s ongoing genealogical research, we are still putting together bits and pieces of Dad’s life, but the deep, important things that made him the remarkable man he was are hard to ever discover now that he is gone. I believe it was Tennyson who wrote “Too late, too late, ye may not enter now.”
I certainly don’t want to end on a depressing note. I did have many wonderful, enlightening conversations with my dad, and he made us well aware of his ethical code, his basic understanding of what his role in life was, his call to serve God, his priorities, his social conscience, his willingness to speak up when others wouldn’t. What I wouldn’t give, though, for one last long, poignant conversation.