“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” wrote Harper Lee in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Are you curious as to what has been unspoken by the elders in your family? Have you wondered what lies just below the surface, waiting for a simple question or slight prodding to reveal?
One way to climb inside the skin of another is to ask questions and listen attentively. Several years ago I sat down with my grandmother to gain a better understanding of her life. She couldn’t believe I was “interested in a bunch of old stuff” and didn’t think she had anything interesting to say. But in our first talk, when I asked if she had an idea of where she’d like to start, she immediately launched into memories of her father that I had no idea about, and the emotion she showed while speaking made it clear that this was something she thought about often, though she had never spoken of it.
“I don’t think my parents had a good relationship. Evidently, my father was mean. He was very strict and didn’t like a lot of things we did. The main thing I remember about my father was he was an alcoholic and he made his own booze, so he was occupied with that instead of taking care of the farm. I remember going into that barn where he made the booze, and where he tested to see how strong it was. He let me lick the tester—I remember that so vividly.
“As a father, I don’t remember him as a good father. But I do remember that day that he went across the pasture and pulled that gun and shot himself. I was only eleven years old, but I remember hearing the blast. I ran to the outside privy and went in there and just sat in there and cried and cried. A couple of his brothers went out there and found him. He was taken to his folks’ farm and people came there to see him. I remember they had a cook-stove that was against the wall, and there was a small space between it and the wall and I crawled behind there. That’s where I went so I wouldn’t have to go in there, but they came and got me. I have that picture of him in my head like it was yesterday. Him lying there in the front room and people coming to see him. I don’t know where he shot himself—that part I don’t remember. When I went and touched him I just looked at his hand, not the rest of him. You wouldn’t believe how cold a dead person is. After that I was okay for some reason. It made me feel better that he was gone.”
It also made my grandmother feel better to talk about that moment in time, to pull it out of the depths of her childhood and think about it from a wiser perspective. Her father’s death added hardships to the lives of his wife and four young daughters, but they clung together and persevered, sprouting a seed of inner strength that flourished inside my grandmother for the rest of her life. That is only one of many things I learned about her, simply by ‘climbing into her skin’ for a short while.
In my work as a personal historian, I have yet to find any truth to someone living ‘an ordinary life.’ Every life story is filled with unexpected twists and upsets, struggles and victories. Every life is unique. Capture the stories, for in doing so, you may also find pieces of yourself.