Questions to Ask Your Family

I have been thinking a lot lately about family, about what it is we're meant to be, if anything, and how we make our decisions that guide us through life. And I stumbled again upon a project I first envisioned years ago, but which I would like to make a reality this year. "2010: The Year of the Family Interview".

Years back I read an article in "Real Simple" magazine that included a several-page questionnaire that you were supposed to ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers... It was a real "getting to know you" set of questions -- and I loved it. I fell in love with the idea.

And then it scared the living shit out of me. Oh god. Did I want to know. Did I want to ask my aunt how she felt about being who she was? Did I want to ask my grandmother if she ever regretted the choices she made? Was I ready to hear that all the fantasies I'd built my own life and ideas about love upon were really a system of compromises? Did things that hurt me hurt others even more? (My greatest fear, even now.)

Did I want to ask my dad what he remembered about his dad, who I never knew? My grandfather was born in 1906. He died in 1968. I always imagined that he would love me. Especially now that I see my own father look at my niece like she's the World's Best Thing (which today, she still is. future children, nieces and nephews, know you will be as loved!). I feel deprived of that love, even though the grandfather I knew was the most loving, accepting person I've ever known.

But something I read today made me think of that questionnaire from years ago, and my plan to travel and film my family. And it was really just a fun idea that touched at something I was both desperate to know and afraid to know. But why am I afraid? Why am I afraid to ask my family these hard questions? These questions that have shaped who we all became and how we molded and raised each other?

Perhaps therein lies the root of my fears.

We all grow up with love and with anger. We all resent things our parents do. We all worship our parents. We wind up going through seasons of love and hate and rebellion and hopefully, eventually, figure out how to make peace with the things we wished were different and the things we pray we have done right.

I think my fear of asking these questions comes from not wanting to cause anyone pain. To not see anyone I love cry. When I have read these simple, straightforward questions, and just reading them makes me cringe a bit, knowing the answers of my mother, aunt or grandmother will be as nuanced, as contingent on circumstance and on fighting for survival as my own would be... I am afraid because I know my own answers are not pretty. I wish theirs to be. Because you never wish suffering on anyone you love.

The only questions I can find online tonight are all addressed to one's mother: here. Godspeed.

But, and I have both learned and hoped that this is true, those who love you will take whatever curve balls you throw them -- whether it be having a "not eating carbs" phase or finally confessing your own battles with suicidal depression, addictions and fear -- and they catch them. They might bobble the ball. They might even drop it. But they will pick it back up. And hold it, staring at it lovingly and solemnly.

And then they will look up. And really, really see you.

And love you even more.


Kimberly said…
I not only read the same Real Simple article, I tore it from the magazine and still have it today. I took it to my grandparent's house and recorded their responses, and it was quite shocking. That time I spent with them and the resulting transcript was priceless. When my grandmother passed away the next year, I sent the recording and transcript to all her relatives. They said it was the best Christmas present ever. If you haven't done this with your family already, I highly recommend it.

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