Let’s Change The Topic!
When I was a boy, my grandparent’s dinner table was our family’s etiquette school. Me and my siblings were taught which fork goes where, how to request more potatoes, and the proper way to have a polite conversation….sort of. My grandmother – bless her dearly departed soul – revelled in her young grandchildren participating in the conversation. When we were pre-schooolers we said the cutest things and all the grown ups laughed and winked when us kids spoke. But as the years caused us to grow up the conversations moved into more serious topics. It became clear that my grandmother was uncomfortable with those real conversations beyond weather, recipes, and TV shows.
One year during a local election, one of us kids asked a question about how the adults chose who they would vote for. Soon a heated debate raged on about politics, corruption, and even the very basis of democracy. The adults faces got red and they started to raise their voices and breathe hard and even a few wagged their fingers, rolled their eyes, and shook their fists at each other. To us kids, this was amazing. With a single question we had learned more in just a few minutes about the values of our parents and grandparents than we had with years of polite small talk.
“Let’s change the topic”, Grandma puffed. “I won’t have this talk at my table!” And silence filled the room. Gradually small talk about the weather, sports, and TV returned. Me and my siblings smiled at each other.
It was at successive family dinners that I discovered the things that really matter in life, the big life issues that are on most people’s minds, most of the time. It turns out that those issues are also the five questions you should never ask at my grandmother’s dinner table.
It’s Okay. . . I’ll ask them for you!
So now when I interview seniors on video I deliberately bring up these five topics: Sex, Love, Religion, Politics, and Money. It’s because what our Elders have learned about these five topics has shaped their lives and indeed, our world. And it is for certain that the next generation of our children, those still unborn, will be dealing with these real life issues, most likely in far more challenging circumstances than we did.
I admit that these five topics can be uncomfortable and in fact, most families typically ban open, direct discussions on sex, love and money, and very often on politics and religion. So at times I have been criticized and censored by frightened adult children when they witness their Elders squirming with these questions. Their instinct is to save them, help them avoid those “inappropriate” intrusions from that clumsy personal historian.
At the end of the interview I ask the Elder how they felt about sharing on those five topics, having tiptoed through the minefield. Almost every senior tells me that they feel glad, gratified, even proud to have given something, their wisdom, their hard earned gleanings, something real and valuable to their grandchildren.
I too feel grateful for the chance to have heard them and understood them and helped them pass on their knowledge.
So if you want only small talk, mindless fluff, and a litany of meaningless dates and places in your family history film, don’t hire me. Instead, if you want to pass on your family’s real knowledge about how to live life, how to live fully, and how to be proud of one’s existence, then hire this personal historian.
And I have five questions for you: What do you know about Sex, Love, Religion, Politics, and Money?
Cory Bretz is a videographer and personal historian. He specializes in interviewing seniors and helping them inspire the future with their life stories, family history, wisdom, blessings, and old photos. Arrange a free consultation to find out about getting your own family history film or storybook. See a basic list of video interview questions.