Monday, June 17, 2013

The best day's work I ever did

"All families have a secret. The secret is that they're not like other families." Alan Bennett.

Yesterday I found the interview I did with my elderly Auntie Lily in 1989 and spent hours capturing it digitally. It's done now so I can email it to any relatives who are interested. I'll be relieved not to have the sole responsibility of hanging on to it. I half-feared I might have lost it. It's the best day's work I ever did.

Lily was the doyenne of the family. The oldest of six and the longest-lived, she was also the company secretary of her father's business and a pillar of the local chapel so there wasn't anything she didn't know. (She also worked as a nanny in Germany in the 30s. We got round to that in a later chat.) She went through all the generations and talked about stuff that in my experience families only ever talk about when somebody has died and it's time to open the tin trunk full of documents. I suspect even my parents didn't fully know some of the things she told me about them.

Afterwards she would proudly tell other members of the family, "David's been to record me". She knew I was recording her because she was getting on ("I don't want to be in my nineties - when you're in your nineties you're just under t' feet") and she wasn't remotely squeamish about it. She was delighted that anyone was bothered about her experience. In our more pretentious times we would say it validated her contribution.

When I tell people I did this they say they'd love to do the same but they don't dare broach the subject in case it seems in bad taste. Everything important in life is. My advice is get on with it. Ring up the most reliable witness in your family and set a date.


  1. Anonymous9:49 am

    Couldn't agree more. My wife video-interviewed her father, who was having chronic cardiac problems, about his life; he died within a fortnight and the tape has become a precious family memento.

    Since then, other family and friends have asked her to do the same for elderly relatives, albeit often with the caveat not to ask about this or that - the dreaded family secret. And here's the rub: as you say, those preparing for the Pearly Gates are frequently very willing, eager even, to discuss that long-ago cot death or awkward redundancy, keen to share their view of the story nobody mentions any more. All interviewees enjoyed it immensely; it was far more often the younger ones who baulked at the thought of death.

  2. My son stuck a microphone under his grandad's nose when he was researching a GCSE History project about WW2 and the young children who were evacuated. I hope I'm not hexing my dad here, but it's true what they say: when an old person dies a museum burns down.

  3. On a slightly related note, maybe we should all be writing and maintaining our own obituaries…

    An elderly uncle of mine with whom I had only the vaguest of relationships recently died suddenly. After having to arrange his funeral and some form of care for my even more elderly and dementia-ridden aunt, I realised I knew virtually nothing about his life, job, likes, dislikes etc in order to provide him with a decent send-off. In fact I felt driven to rectify this by the guilt of somehow letting him down with a funeral service that did not reflect his time amongst us in any decent fashion.

    Having eventually managed to piece together the story of his life, friends and loves by digging through every scrap of information I could find in his papers, and a time-consuming process of contacting everyone in his address book to inform them of his passing and ask how they knew him and what they could tell me about him, the thought sprang to mind that some poor soul might well have to do the same thing for me one day so maybe I should give them a helping hand in advance rather than leaving it up to their own investigations and imagination!