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Golden Opportunity: Don't Lose Your History to the Grave

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The weeks between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are also the time for high-school and college graduations, which often involve visits from grandparents. That makes this a time for generations to get together so they don’t make the mistake I made.


Here’s my error: From the time I turned an arrogant 13, my father and I didn’t talk much. Looking back now, it seems unbelievable that when I flew from Texas to Massachusetts in 1984 to visit my parents for a week as he was dying of cancer, we didn’t talk for more than minutes about anything important, and I didn’t ask him questions about his own past.

Oh, I did try a couple of times to evangelize him, but he was proud of his Jewishness, even though he did not revere the Bible. So why didn’t I ask about growing up in the 1930s? Why didn’t I ask whether the Nazis murdered his grandparents? Looking back, it seems bizarre that while visiting home in 1984 I spent a day near Harvard questioning an old public relations pioneer, Edward Bernays, for a history book I was writing, but didn’t do the same with my own father.

My wife was much wiser: When her father was also dying of cancer, he gave her the family genealogy and his own reminiscences. That’s something his descendants will have. So, if you have time to sit down with grandparents during graduation festivities, or if you’re living with or close to your parents, this column is for you: Don’t miss a great opportunity. Get the family stories while you still can. Use a smartphone or tape recorder. Helpful apps are now available. Lots of good questions to ask are at legacyproject.org/guides/lifeintquestions.html. Remember to label photographs.


Parents and grandparents, you might send this column to your children or grandchildren. If that seems too direct, leave it lying on a coffee table when the kids come to visit, the way my father left on the coffee table for me a book entitled “How to Tell Your Children About Sex.”

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