This post is dedicated to the beautiful couple pictured above, Jimmy (83) and Dot (82) Dixon who have been married for 64 years. The tornado that ripped through Alabama on April 27th took away their home and all their possessions, but it did not take their precious memories. Let today’s post inspire every single one of us to call a loved one today and listen to a memory.
The first grade classes at my daughter’s school recently did a special project in which they interviewed a grandparent. The children were required to ask several questions about the grandparent’s life, childhood, and fondest memories. Also included in the project were pictures of the grandparent in different stages of life.
I think it is safe to say that take home projects from school commonly produce grumbling from parents (me included). But I can’t help but think that what began as a grumble ended as a praise of gratitude.
Perhaps the same realization that occurred to me a little over a year ago also occurred to one of these parents while doing this project.
I am talking about this simple, yet painful, truth: The memories that live in our parents will also die with our parents and grandparents. Unless. Unless we uncover those treasures while they are still attainable and find a place for them to reside within our hearts.
And the treasure discovery begins with a question.
And we must listen, really listen if we want to preserve this treasury of information.
This is my story…
A little over a year ago, my mom suffered from a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or a “mini stroke”. There was a brief time after the episode that we did not know whether or not she would retain her memory. By the grace of God, my mom fully retained every single one of her memories.
Although I had not begun my Hands Free journey at that time, I was not too distracted by the insignificant to see the sizable wake up call standing before me with flashing yellow lights and a bull horn.
This disturbing wake up call shook its head and disappointedly said, “There are so many things you don’t know about your parents. Ask! Ask! Ask the questions while you still can.”
So my oldest daughter and I began a month long mission: To call one grandparent each evening and ask one question about their past memories.
Once my daughter saw the journal in which I would record their memories, she began recording, too.
The call lasted approximately three to five minutes. Sometimes we would even give the grandparents a “heads up” about what we would be asking them next time, in case they wanted to think about it (or look forward to it).
In a mere three to five minutes per night, my daughter and I found out things we did not know…
We heard their stories of hardship …
PawPaw had no TV, no phone…the only radio he listened to was the one in the car. He got his first cell phone when he was 62 years old.
Grandpa Ben (my daughters call him “GB”) only had two or three birthday parties throughout his childhood. He told of his surprise party at his sister’s house when he was eight years old.
PawPaw had an outside toilet until he was eighteen years old.
GB got ten cents from the tooth fairy.
We heard their stories of happiness..
PawPaw rarely got presents on his birthday. But when he was ten, he got a bike. He was the only one in the family who got a bike. His brother helped him learn to ride.
MeMe loved it when it snowed on her birthday so she could make a snowman with her little sister.
We gained insight into childhood pain and loss…
MeMe had her appendix out when she was ten years old. She missed her sister dearly and was only allowed to wave to her sister at the window because children were not allowed in the hospital.
MeMe’s dad lost his toes to frostbite and they snuck her into the hospital to see him. She remembered that he looked terrible and she thought he was going to die. He survived and learned to walk with a limp.
PawPaw told of his grueling experiences with Polio. He told of long hospital stays away from his family, operation after operation, wheel chairs, iron lungs and learning to walk again.
Grammy told of her hospital stay when the pain in her stomach was unbearable.
And times of mistakes…
GB found matches, lit one, and made a black mark on the floor.
Grammy got in trouble by the operator for using the phone, and she also stepped on a neighbor's pie that was cooling.
MeMe had to wear a piece of paper over her mouth in school for talking too much.
We heard stories that made them more real…
MeMe’s first boyfriend was Lester in the first grade.
PawPaw’s pet beagle, Pal, would pull him in a wagon.
GB’s favorite toys were his plastic men soldiers. He watched “Red Skeleton” with his parents on a black and white TV and loved to play Monopoly.
MeMe remembered her first phone number was 4701 R, and three rings meant the phone call was for their family.
I wish you could see my daughter’s face as she listened to her grandparents’ stories. It was clearly better than any book I could have read her before bedtime.
And before she hung up, she always said the same thing, “Thanks for the memory.”
I didn’t tell her to say that, she just did.
But several months later, an unexpected benefit of The Nightly Question Call came to light.
My daughters and I visited one of their grandparents at his place of employment for the very first time.
In several of the different departments we got the same response from his coworkers upon meeting us: “Is this the family who asks the questions?”
Then his co-workers bent down to my daughters and said, “Your grandpa would come in every day and tell us what the question was for the night. We love to hear the questions!”
And through tearful eyes, I saw that not only had my daughters been given a gift by hearing the memories…so had their grandparents.
They looked forward to our calls.
They looked forward to sharing their memories.
They looked forward to that connection with their granddaughters.
They looked forward to sharing their story with someone who cared to listen.
The Power of a Question.
It only takes three minutes, but the impact is life-changing.
Rather than staying buried and never to be discovered, a treasure can be extracted from the heart and mind of a loved one. And this treasured memory will live in the heart of the grandchild who hears it. Perhaps one day she will tell it to her own child.
The Power of a Question.
Go on and ask. Ask away. Ask while you still can.
You may be growing tired of hearing about the tornado that has completely devastated my state, but now I see things differently than I did one week ago. And I am simply the messenger of this journey writing what is placed on my heart and in my mind.
As so many people dig through the rubble that used to be their home, special momentos from their past, like old pictures, become valuable treasures. And the memories of the person who survived to tell them, well, those memories are priceless.
My Hands Free challenge to you is to push away distraction for five minutes today and pick up the phone. Call a relative and ask them to send you an old photograph, ask him or her to tell you a childhood story, and then listen, listen as if this is the last conversation you may ever have.
Someday it will be.
Grab those treasures while you still can.