In September 2010, I got the idea to film my great-grandmother telling stories.
The timing was perfect. I had just gotten a wireless microphone for my high-definition camcorder, and I needed a subject to test it on.
And what better subject than my family’s near-centenarian matriarch?
That’s right: Gram was 99 at the time, just five months shy of her 100th birthday. And although her grasp of the present was slipping (she often repeated herself and sometimes would forget where she was), her memories of the past were not only intact — they were razor-sharp.
She never lived in a nursing home. Each of her surviving children took turns staying at her house, so that she could be in a familiar environment.
My grandpa, Dennis Cassinelli, and my grandma, Mary, often would invite us for dinner when it was their turn to stay with Gram. (Gram was Mary’s mother.) On such a weekend, I went over for an impromptu recording session — as well as a delicious meal. (After all, a well-fed interviewer is a happy interviewer.)
My parents came, too. And after dinner, we settled in the living room, with Gram taking her usual seat near the front window.
I set the camcorder on a tripod, then attached the wireless microphone to Gram’s collar. I explained that we wanted to interview her, but I wasn’t sure if she knew what I was doing. And if she wondered why there was a blinking camcorder pointed at her, she didn’t say anything.
When everything was set up and the camera was rolling, we started talking.
I lobbed a few questions at her about her childhood, and her eyes lit up. Immediately, she launched into a familiar story about how her older brother, Bud, would tease her about being born in “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” — which was his way of describing California.
He, on the other hand, had been born in the “gold and silver state of Nevada.” (Apparently, he liked to remind her of that a lot.)
After that first story, there was a pause. We had to prod a little more to get her going, but once she did, the stories unspooled like yarn.
She talked about a Christmas morning when all the children had opened their presents. Her youngest sister started crying, because there were no more gifts to open.
So Gram’s father took a rug into the kitchen and rolled himself into it. His wife and the other children helped lug him back into the living room, put him under the tree, and told the young girl that there was one more Christmas present — and it was just for her.
She eagerly unfurled the rug, and her father rolled out. The girl squealed with joy, and for the rest of that Christmas day, he belonged to her and no one else. “That was her daddy,” Gram said.
Another story took place when Gram was a schoolgirl. She got so mad at the teacher that she marched into the coatroom and tore all the children’s coats off the racks to stomp on them.
In another, her mother admonished her for being a tomboy. “Why can’t you stay in the house and be a little lady like Virginia?” she asked, referring to the neighbor girl, who was prim and elegant. But Gram much preferred to be outside playing baseball with the boys.
We recorded for well over an hour. Each of us took turns asking questions. My grandparents could prod deeper, as they knew more of the family history. My grandpa, Dennis, well-known for being the Nevada-history buff of the family, asked her a series of questions about growing up in Tonopah, Nevada.
Gram talked about her first job, her children, and the first time she met her future husband, Cornileus.
The session wasn’t without hiccups. At one point, Gram started toying with the wireless mic, as if it were a brooch. I had to pause the camcorder to move the mic. It’s a funny moment — the sound at that part gets real staticky — and it gives the interview character. I love it.
She also repeated herself at times — the story about “the land of the lemon, the prune, and the nut” came up often — but each time we’d gently broach another subject, and away she’d go.
The video starts out in bright, late-afternoon sunlight, and as it proceeds the room gradually gets darker, and darker, until someone finally turns on a light.
However, Gram’s voice is clear — as it was fed directly from the mic to the camcorder. Her words are crisp and audible, her memories preserved in time for her family to enjoy. My hope is that the video will allow descendants who never met her to see what a cheerful, buoyant person she was.
Gram passed away in December that year. In two more months, she would have been 100. The family had been planning a large celebration. I’d even scheduled my photographer friend to be there, to capture the occasion.
But we captured our own special moment that day, and I’m so grateful we did. None of us knew that evening would be one of the last times we’d ever see Gram.
I watch the video sometimes, and when I do, memories of that day come tumbling back. And I realize that although life is short, it can include so much. Gram had grown up in an era with horse-drawn plows and Model-T Fords. Yet she lived to see things like computers and cell phones and YouTube and Facebook. (Personally, I prefer the era with Model-T Fords.)
If you have an aging relative, I encourage you to record their stories. Capture them on video, like I did, or jot them down in a journal. Everyone has stories worth hearing, and everyone deserves to have a piece of their lives preserved. You don’t want all that knowledge lost.
You and your family will be so grateful you did. I know I am.
Watching Gram’s interview, the video does more than replay an old woman’s memories. Rather, it paints a picture of a family sitting down after dinner to talk and enjoy each other’s company. It was something we had done so many times before that on that day it seemed so commonplace, so ordinary.
But looking back, I can see now how extraordinary it really was.
I can see, too, how blessed I am to have those moments, being with the people I love.
I’m grateful for them, and for the people in my life.
Allen Coyle is Dennis Cassinelli’s grandson and the author of two books, which are available on Amazon. He’s also the webmaster for denniscassinelli.com.