A friend stopped by for tea and gave me her favorite quote of the day. “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” How often do we regret a missed opportunity or think it’s too late, and then miss another opportunity.
When I started looking for my mother’s unknown history, back in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was so frustrated that I hadn’t asked her more questions about her life while she was alive. But by whatever grace, I looked around for whoever I could ask questions and found an uncle, a cousin of my mother, and several other people who had known her before I was born. Then I went even further. I found several adults, all my mother’s age or older, who had grown up in Leipzig, the same German city where Alice was born. I even interviewed Dr. Schmerl, a centarian who lived at an assisted living and elder care facility in the Bay Area.
Dr. Schmerl became an amazing friend. He didn’t know my mother, but as he spoke I got a sense of the life she left behind when Hitler forced her and her community to flee. When Fritz spoke of standing in line to get tickets for the evening’s performance of Mozart at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Concert Hall, I saw Alice and her sister Erika standing in line too. When Fritz spoke of taking an excursion to the countryside to go hiking and have a picnic, I saw Alice and Erika with their boyfriends exuberantly escaping their authoritative parents, and when he mentioned drinking Gose, a fermented alcoholic drink particular to Leipzig, I saw two liberated young women laughing and smiling with their friends in Auerbach’s Cellar, a bar where purportedly Goethe wrote Faust and included in his famous story.
Maybe asking twenty years ago would have yielded some other stories, but as I expanded my idea about the people I could interview, the tapestry of my mother’s life developed texture and substance, with personal anecdotes no history book could provide.
Is there someone on your family tree you’d like to know better? It’s time to plant some seeds, expand your perspective and ask. Be creative and be open. You’ll be surprised on how much the person you are seeking will emerge, how clearly you will get a sense of knowing him or her. Be creative and let us know what happens.