Mother’s Day reminds me of a pretty bad week from last November. I was appearing back then on a nationally televised show in relation to one of my books, but that event was soon relegated to unimportance. At the time, my mom had been hospitalized for two weeks. She died in the early minutes of November 2—at the very same hour the show was running on Discovery ID. A few days later, her funeral was held—on my birthday. Those were just unfortunate coincidences, and they matter little. Death has a way of putting TV shows and birthdays in perspective.
Mom was a fan of my work, especially early on when the first few books sold well. She enjoyed selling books to local friends who stopped by to pick up copies, so I kept a small supply at her house solely for that purpose. It did seem to bring her lots of pleasure.
For most of the past 13 years, my wife Jill and I visited my parents weekly. There were calls for help with the sump pump, car repairs, doctor appointments, and other things, but the weekly visits were separate, focusing on card games, playing pool, and having fun for three or four hours.
Besides the constant joking around that we engaged in, the conversation often delved into family and regional history. My parents’ generation was always big on secrets: don’t talk about divorce, wild times, or family matters around the children. A lot of that secrecy was still happening when the children, including me, were adults with our own families.
So on those weekly visits, I tossed the old rules aside and began probing for information that was previously considered taboo. I learned a lot from Mom about family, and local history as well.
I began planning my questions in advance, much like I’ve prepared for interviews during book research. It was fun, even more so when Mom became annoyed to the point where she’d say, “Oh, Larry, you’re such a pest!” Some of the stories involved personal accounts of Prohibition, when hundreds of local folks, including many of my relatives, were involved in handling bootleg whiskey. Despite her warnings not to, I’ll be including some of that information in a future book.
When Mom passed, she was 92. Prior to hospitalization, she was still sharp enough to recall events from her childhood. Our family was fortunate to have her for so long, and for a guy like me who loves researching the past, she was a goldmine of information.
So here’s my chance to offer some sound advice. If you have elderly relatives, friends, or community members that you’ve thought about interviewing, do it. Chances are, they’ll enjoy it, and so will you. If you put it off, you’ll someday express regrets when the option is gone.
Make a plan. Take a notebook and list questions, leaving room to pencil in some comments, even if you’re recording each session. Whether or not you ever publish what you learn, it will likely become a prized possession for the remainder of your life.
It will also help avoid painful regrets for not asking questions that might forever remain unanswered. That’s one regret I don’t have with my mom—thanks to all the pestering.