Today, I made good on a 6-month-old promise to visit my great-Uncle B and listen to his stories about making, selling and “running” corn whiskey. These stories are part of my novel-in-progress, Poke Sallet Queen. I walked down the hallway of the nursing home with a heavy heart. In January, when I first made the promise to visit, he was living at home. Until two weeks ago, he would have offered a seat on his couch to me. But today, I stood beside a hospital bed and listened as he struggled to talk, as he pushed his whispers up toward my ear, as he stopped to give his vocal chords a rest while I leaned over to listen.
They found a tumor, cancer, in the back of his throat. He’s over 80 and hasn’t missed a second of life, nor has he lost very many strands from his head of full, gray hair. Sharp, direct, funny– that’s still Uncle B, even in the nursing home. I learned new ways to hide a keg today. He said that he served 30 days in Montgomery, AL, then laughed, “I’ve always been proud of that.” He smiled. His deep, full strength voice broke in sometimes, like a radio signal momentarily playing clearly through the static. I asked questions to clarify previous stories I’ve heard. My great Aunt said to him, “You know Shana’s gonna write a book?”
He nodded. He knew and said, “Well, I hope she already is.”
“I have already written a lot,” I said.
He asked about my brother and then, we made plans to talk again in two weeks. His throat became tired.
He said, “When you come back, we can meet at my house and I’ll tell you more stories.”
Leaving, walking down the hallway, my voice caught while talking to my great Aunt, “I messed up,” I said. “I should’ve visited earlier.”
I repeated this statement to my Mom, then to my husband, who said, “Just go forward. Write and go forward.”
I used to tell my students to take every opportunity to record the stories told by their grandparents, and I failed to follow my own advice in the most thoughtful way. Thinking about my elderly relatives on the drive home, I vowed to start visiting them regularly in order to capture their voices above a whisper.
I love this—it is so bittersweet. My grandmother has had some setbacks recently and I feel inspired by your experience to ask for more of her stories. The details never fail to knock me over with their color and poignancy and riches.
You should. I’m going to ask if I can record Uncle B, my great aunt, and my Nana when I visit them next month. I hope that they’ll say yes. Even if they won’t consent to a video, maybe they’ll be okay with an audio recording.
That’s a great idea—I was thinking the same thing. And then you preserve the voice, too.