Asking the Question

First Person Nov 14Every life has a story.

by Tom Gordon

If you’re looking for some appropriate Veterans Day reading material, you should look no further than the third volume in journalist-historian Rick Atkinson’s trilogy about the U.S. Army in World War II.

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–45  is a great stand-alone read for those of you who are history-minded or perhaps want to understand more about the things your father or grandfather  endured if they fought in that horrific conflict.

One section of the book that has stayed with me focuses on the first time U.S. troops liberated a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. What they found there made even “Old Blood and Guts,” Gen. George Patton, throw up.

“We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for,” Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied forces commander, told a group of troops at the site. “Now at least he will know what he is fighting against.”

My father was not at that camp, but I would give just about anything to discuss Eisenhower’s  statement with him. However, that would not be the only conversation topic. The longer Dad and Mom have been gone—he died in 1997, she in 2006—the more I find myself thinking about questions only they could answer.

If you have lost parents, or loved-ones with whom you were close for a long time, you, too, may have questions and topics that you now regret not asking or exploring with them when they were alive. Some of those questions may have been as difficult as breaking a conversational embargo  about a dad’s D-Day experiences, or as simple as identifying  the lady in the Edwardian hat standing stiffly in a small sepia-toned, early-20th-century photo that you found one day in one of your mom’s scrapbooks.

As I have watched children of some of my still healthy and active friends reach adulthood, I have told some of them to start thinking about some things they might like to ask their parents, and to ask those questions now. Given that they are at an age where they’re not usually inclined to give that stuff a lot of thought, they may have brushed my suggestion aside. They may have even found it morbid. But I have tried to preemptively counter that notion by telling them, “These things may not matter a lot to you right now, but trust me, the day will come when you’ll have some questions that only your parents can answer, and they will no longer be here—or mentally able—to provide them.”

I’ve written about my father and World War II for this magazine, and some of the material came from his own words, from a 90-minute interview I did with him using a cassette recorder in early 1982. I value that audio, not only because it contains interesting stuff, but also because it allows me to hear Dad’s voice. But questions dog me whenever I listen to the audio: Why did I not do more of these sessions?  And not only with Dad, but with Mom, too?

For part of my career at The Birmingham News, I wrote a weekly feature called “Farewells.” My job was to write a short article about someone who had recently passed away. That someone could not be a fancy-titled bigshot, just an everyday person like pretty much all of us. Each week was a challenge, because friends and relatives of the person I had chosen often would first say that he or she always had a smile, never knew a stranger, or was universally beloved.

It wasn’t always possible to get past those platitudes, but looking back, I feel that more often than not, I managed to do so and gave readers a meaningful glimpse of a meaningful life. After all, everyone has  stories to tell. And if you are in a position to get a lot of those stories from loved ones who have lived full lives, I suggest you try to get them now.  Over time, you and other family members will be glad you did. Trust me.

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