I can hear myself sniffling throughout the first recording I did with my mom. But she was calm, in that weird way that moms are even in a crisis.
She was telling me about her time as a medical resident in Harlem during the AIDS epidemic in the ′80s, back when she walked through parks filled with needles to get to her hospital. I’d never asked her about that time before, or knew how scary it was. I also didn’t know about her Australian hairdresser boyfriend from the summer before, who surprised her with a punk Annie Lennox pixie cut.
It’s the only interview we did in person, recorded during my last visit home in March. I cried throughout because I was terrified to return. I could infect my mom, a podiatrist who spends Saturdays with patients who are often sick or elderly. I could pass along the disease to my stepdad, who is on the executive team of a nursing home. I could kill my 84-year-old grandfather.
But even though the coronavirus would keep us apart, it could be an opportunity to get to know my mom in a way I never had before.
I’d already memorized the stories she always tells, like the time she ran into Mr. T in a Manhattan hotel — she’d say, “I thought he was a poser because he looked much bigger on TV.” — and the summer in Lebanon when she accidentally set her grandfather’s new donkey loose. But I’d never actually taken the time to interview her, like I do with sources every day.
I knew my mom and her family came to America from Lebanon when she was 9, but I knew very little about how she spent her early years there. So I hit record during our evening phone calls and started to ask questions.
We left an anxious world obsessed with death counts and went back in time to Beirut in the ′60s. We were in the living room from her childhood, where beehive-haired ladies smoked from designer cigarette holders at dinner parties. My grandparents were so excited about the moon landing that they decorated with a framed portrait of the astronauts.
We were with my grandmother as she scandalously drove without her husband to visit the old village in a white VW bug and made the country folk gasp as she stepped out in a miniskirt and go-go boots.
We were in the airport, clutching bundles of pots and blankets, waiting for the flight to whisk us away from my mom’s hometown by the sea to Cleveland, where her Uncle Fred was waiting for us in his blue convertible.
To be fair, my mom is a natural storyteller, making her the perfect interview subject. She remembers little details, like discovering the depressing scent of Ohio’s rotting leaves and how weird American fruit and eggs tasted. She still can picture the Miss America lunch box her mom bought for her, and how proud she was to carry it to school containing a sandwich on white bread like the other kids.
Along the way, things started to make sense about why my mom is the way she is. I knew she adored jasmine and gardenias, but not that she spent her childhood sewing together the flowers to make necklaces. She always said she would be a dancer in another life, but I didn’t know one of her first memories was watching her parents sway together in the kitchen to French music. She had been so calm during the coronavirus outbreak, but only because for the past four years she and my stepdad had already sacrificed much of their social life to caretake my grandfather, who has dementia.
“We were social distancing before it was cool,” she jokes.
We’ll keep recording as we stay apart. The tapes are a coronavirus time capsule, capturing how weird everything is in the present. The raw audio is also a new family heirloom documenting the past.
Besides, I have some more questions about my mom’s disco dancing.
Want to interview your loved one?
Use the voice memo app on your phone to record in person. If you’re separated and interviewing over the phone, you can use an app like TapeACall or Call Recorder. Just make sure to follow Florida law and tell the other person that you are recording.
Here are some questions to get started:
- What do you remember about what life was like when you were my age?
- Tell me about your earliest memory.
- How do you want to spend your first days after the coronavirus crisis is over? What do you miss the most?
- Describe your favorite travel destination and why you loved it so much. Tell me a story of your worst travel nightmare.
- Dig up some old family photos. What are the stories behind the images?