Years ago when my son was in high school, he decided to interview my mother and tape-record her story. He wanted to know more about how she arrived in this country, how she met her husband, what life was like in "the old days."
It's not an atypical quest. Kids get interested in their grandparents' lives, especially if those grandparents emigrated to this country and had to adjust to a whole new way of life. I was reminded of this when a friend told me about her grandson's decision to tape-record his grandfather's life. The grandfather--Joe--was born in Russia but grew up in Shanghai when his parents moved there. He left to go to college in the U.S. While he was in the U.S., there was tremendous upheaval in China. He was stuck in the U.S. with no money, no one to pay his tuition and a better command of Chinese, Russian and French than of English. How he managed to survive, prosper and have a brilliant career as an economist--one who spent several years living in Paris, London and other glamorous world capitals--was the tale the grandson wanted to record.
The grandson, who lives in a city several hundred miles to the south of Joe and my friend, came up north for two weeks this summer to interview his grandfather. He stayed with his grandparents--which had its ups and downs but mostly was a positive and bonding experience. All went well until he showed Joe the typed up pages--"selected parts" of a very long transcript.
Joe took issue with many details--"I didn't say that," he would claim, demanding to to see a full transcript, which would have cost several thousand dollars to produce. (My friend priced it: $90 an hour to transcribe two weeks worth of interviews.) The grandson had kept an index of "events" as he interviewed his grandfather so he knew which parts he could skip and where he wanted to concentrate his transcription efforts.
The project had been for a class at school; the grandson handed in his interview and got credit for a job well done. But my friend worries that this legacy-writing project will drive a wedge between grandfather and grandson. The grandson--a college student--says he plans to write a book about Joe and my friend says that is what worries her husband: Someone else will spin the narrative of his life. He would rather it be he who writes it but, as my friend points out, he's an economist who is not particularly blessed with narrative skills.
She is relieved that so far there has been no damage to the grandparent-grandson relationship. Now that the arguments over the interview transcripts have been ironed out, there's some hope that at least the book will be accurate. The grandson may turn Joe's life into a compelling book, but at least it will be based on lengthy interviews that Joe has had a chance to read and correct.