Sometimes, when I tell people I was raised by my grandmother, they express sympathy — as if I've missed out. But I loved how I grew up. My grandmother knew so much and had so many stories to share from over six decades of life. She wasn't a harried, middle-aged person parenting a small child — she was a mature woman who knew herself and understood the world.
Getting to know people who have been around for three or four decades or more than you can be an incredibly enriching experience. You'll likely learn something about how the world has changed.
How do you start the ball rolling and get to the good stories? Starting up a random conversation might feel awkward. The holidays are a great time to begin with a simple icebreaker question: "What was Thanksgiving/Hanukkah/Christmas/New Year's Eve like when you were my age?"
Making it into a project can help, too. StoryCorps offers a format: "You invite a loved one, or anyone else you choose, to one of the StoryCorps recording sites to share a 40-minute conversation." The organization, "gives people of all backgrounds, typically two at a time, the opportunity to record meaningful conversations and archives the recordings at the Library of Congress." You can also record stories using the organization's app, which might be a great format for jumping into a conversation of a lifetime. Consider the StoryCorps' stories below your inspiration.
The library resident
"My father was the keeper of the temple of knowledge," Ronald Clark said in his story, which focuses on the fact that he and his family lived in a library when he was growing up. That's because in many libraries across the U.S., custodial staff (which Clark's father was) lived in the building they cared for. Clark grew up living in an apartment above the Washington Heights branch of the New York Public Library on St. Nicholas Avenue in upper Manhattan. He was initially ashamed of the fact that he and his family lived in the library and not an apartment building. But he soon changed his mind:
"Nobody had as many books as I had," said Clark, who was able to use the library after it was closed. "If I had any question about anything, I would get up in the middle of the night go down and get a book, and read until 3 o'clock in the morning. I began to realize how great I had it. The library gave me a thirst for learning, and it never left me."
Clark went on to become a professor, and when his father saw his name on the door, his memory of his father's pride is tangible and beautiful. "I can hardly imagine what my life would have been like had I not lived in the library," said Clark. Once you listen to his story, you'll probably feel the same way.
The hopeful astronaut
Asked one day by the U.S. government if she wanted to be an astronaut, pilot Wally Funk, said yes, with no reservations. The then 20-year-old was tested, and she passed, even staying in the isolation tank for 10 1/2 hours — longer than any of the men or women in the group she was a part of. The women in the group were known as the Mercury 13, but they never got to go to space — the program was cancelled.
Funk applied to NASA four times, and they told her she needed an engineering degree, so she got one. "I never let anyone stop me. I know my body and my mind can take anything that any space outfit wants to give me. High-altitude chamber test is fine. Centrifuge test, which I know I can do 5 or 6 Gs —these things are easy for me," says Funk in the interview above. Funk still hasn't given up on her space dreams — she's got a ticket for Virgin Galactic's first tourist trip to outer space.
The headstrong detective
When Kay Wang's mother made her apologize for being a naughty kid by saying "I'm sorry" and bringing her tea, she spilled it on her mother's lap instead. She didn't like school much, so she would make up stories to get out of going.
That headstrong attitude set her up well to become a detective at Bloomingdale's where she didn't let a famous client get away with stealing a dress — even when the woman tried to intimidate her by asking "Do you know who I am?"
At 87, Kay laughs at the idea of having regrets. "What should I regret?" she asks. "I think I’m old enough to do whatever I would like."
The designer who won't quit
Manuel Cuevas is the fashion designer responsible for turning Johnny Cash into "The Man in Black," but once he was a small boy dreaming of fabrics and leather when other kids his age were playing games. "That never interested me," says Cuevas.
He says clothing isn't all about the clothes, it's the person wearing it that comes through. He creates bespoke pieces because he never wants to make the same thing twice.
Cuevas doesn't believe in retiring. Besides, people keep calling him to design clothes and giving him checks. He doesn't figure he'd last long as a retiree: "The sewing machine and the needle and the thimble, that's it for me, you know."
The internment camp residents
Roy Ebihara and his wife Aiko, when they were children, were part of the internment of Japanese people during World War II. Roy was 8 years old when a local sheriff burst into his home in Clovis, New Mexico, and destroyed his camera and the family's radio. "One night, vigilantes groups formed in town. We saw the men were holding oil torches, coming across to where we lived — they were going to burn down everything."
They were sent to camps shortly after that incident. "I remember getting on these Army trucks; I thought I was going on a vacation," said Aiko. She and her husband were expected not to speak of that time after the war ended, and they say they regret keeping that silence all these years.
"I was 8 years old and really didn't understand what this meant and how this would affect our family. I guess I felt we were guilty of something, but what I didn't know," said Roy.