Friday, January 24, 1992: I had just returned home from watching Oliver Stone’s new movie, JFK, with a friend, when I received the phone call. Through tears my aunt said: “ Your parents didn’t make it home.” My heart sank in my chest as she
explained that my parents’ small plane went down in a bad storm in the Bermuda Triangle, off the coast of Florida.
My parents had moved to the Bahamas seven years earlier and my father, a physician, became the “island doctor” for three neighboring islands. He loved his job, as he was able to help the local population receive basic health care. After leaving a stressful medical practice in Chicago he found new purpose helping the less fortunate on the islands he came to love.
The flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Miami gave me ample time to reflect on my relationship with my parents. They were good parents who provided everything my brother and I needed, and more. With their love and support the chances were better than ever for me to become a successful adult.
What I began to realize was that I really didn’t know my parents that well. Fifteen years earlier, when I was 18, we parted ways and I went to Germany to study. What should have been a one-year adventure turned out to be twenty years of study and work in Europe. Sure, we saw each other at least once a year, but we never really had deep discussions, the kind I now longed for and realized would never happen.
Twenty-six years later – if I had the chance – I’d love to ask my parents questions that I never got to ask. This list is very personal and may not mean much for you. But see it as a challenge – especially if you still have parents or grandparents that are alive – to spend time with them and ask deep questions, the kind you might be putting off because they seem uncomfortable. You might not have the chance if you wait.
How did the two of you meet? How long did you date? What did your parents think about your relationship? Did you have sex before marriage? If no, why not? If yes, why? Tell me about your relationship to your parents. What did you admire most about your parents? What did you hate about your parents? Share with me something that you remember best about your relationship with your siblings. Why weren’t you close to them? What did your parents say to you when you informed them that you wanted to leave Germany and move to America?
World War II:
You were just teenagers when the war broke out: what did you think of Hitler? Tell me about your parents’ attitude toward the Nazi party and what, if anything, their role was in it. What was it like being part of the Hitler youth? Dad, you were drafted into the German army when you were 15; did you ever kill anyone in the war? Dad, you were a prisoner of war, captured by the Americans. Tell me about that experience.
What did you think and feel when the war ended, when the Nazis were defeated? Was this a time of celebration or sorrow for you?
How were you able to keep your marriage together? Tell me about some of the struggles that you faced and how you were able to overcome these challenges. If you had the chance to do something different what would it have been? What stress did the death of our brother, your third son, Allen, put on your marriage? Did you ever think of giving up on your marriage? If not, why? What words of wisdom would you give me on how to be a good husband?
What were some of the biggest struggles that the two of you faced and how did you get through them? What was it like being an immigrant to the United States? Did you feel any prejudice because you were from Germany and spoke with a heavy accent? Dad, you allowed your mother-in-law, my grandmother, to move to America and live with us for 20 years. Why did you do this and what was your relationship like to her? What strains did this bring into your marriage?
Dad, you were always very tight with money, why? What were you afraid of? How much are you earning? What are your financial goals and do you ever plan on retiring? When you die, will I be inheriting any money? And if so, how could I honor you and mom with the way that I use this money? What are some life lessons regarding money that you could share with me? Mom, you walked away from a big company in Germany when you and dad decided to move to America. Is there anything you regret about this decision? Why did grandpa’s company go under in the mid 60’s and could you have done anything to prevent it from happening?
Tell me about your spiritual journeys. What role did religion play in your parents’ lives and how did this influence your upbringing? Do you believe that God exists? Dad, why didn’t you ever come to church with us?
Is there a single event that you believe was a turning point in your life?
The comedian Bill Murray had such a life-changing event on his 20th birthday. Murray was a student at Regis University in Denver and had his sights set on becoming a surgeon. It was September 21, 1970 and Murray travelled home to visit his parents. He was arrested at O’Hare Airport for trying to smuggle 10 pounds of cannabis. He never returned to Regis and he never became a surgeon.
My list of questions could go on and on and I’d give anything to be able to ask them to my parents.
I recently read Karl Pillemer’s excellent book on life lessons from the wisest Americans and in it he writes:
We are on the verge of losing an irreplaceable natural resource. The inexorable process of human aging is depriving us of one of the most extraordinary groups of human beings that has ever lived: America’s older generation. (1)
My life lesson, and one that I’d like to share with you is this: don’t wait, start asking your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles deep questions. Do the same with other elderly people that you come in contact with because soon they won’t be around and the opportunity will have vanished. The elderly have a lot of wisdom and they’d love to share it with you if you just take the time to ask them.
- Karl Pillemer: 30 Lessons for Living; Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, A Plume Book, 2012