I never planned to make an episode of this podcast about my own family history, but I’ve been spending more time thinking about my relatives, who are scattered across the country, ever since the coronavirus pandemic started. In particular, I’ve been worried about my grandmother (I call her Oma), who has been isolated in a Florida nursing home that banned visitors more than a month ago.
From 1971 until 1975, my grandfather, Col. Jim Driscoll (I called him Opa), was stationed at the Oakland Army Base and during that time Oma volunteered there. I interviewed her a while ago about her East Bay years, but I never listened to the conversation until recently. Hearing it now, during this time of isolation and uncertainty, was a powerful experience. We discussed the improbability of finding love amidst war, the challenges of balancing military service with family, and the unexpected ways that life can spontaneously intersect with historical events.
I’ll admit that revealing so much about my family make me anxious, but I hope that hearing my Oma look back on her tumultuous life with the kind of amused serenity that comes with old age will provide some solace, or at least a momentary escape, for everyone struggling with the surreal horrors and grinding frustrations of present reality.
Another motivation for releasing this episode – and I say this with as much humility as possible – is that I’m hoping that it might inspire some of you to talk with your elders. Or, if you are an elder, to talk with the young people in your family or community. With loneliness spiking during this time of social distancing, what better remedy than dusting off that old treasure chest of distant memories and bonding over the process of unpacking them (and recording them)? If this prospect sounds intimidating, UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center has shared some tips for getting the most out of these kinds of conversations.
Throughout my years of interviewing people about their lives, one thing I’ve realized is that the first few minutes are always the most awkward. People who have never been interviewed before are often self-conscious or shy about unearthing long-buried memories. With a bit of patience and encouragement, however, tiny trickles of recollections will inevitably start flowing together and a flood of stories will eventually pour forth. You just have to be willing to listen.
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