Happy Birthday Mom – A StoryCorps Interview

This past March (2015), I saw in a Getty’s newsletter email the opportunity to participate in a StoryCorps project there. In StoryCorps’ words, “we’re inviting participants to reflect on what leisure and recreation means to people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and generations.”

I sent in a proposal/application to interview my Mother, Cecilia Ann Laidemitt, who in my eyes has always had an excellent memory for detail and at the age of 72 is ever as lively as I remember her as a child through her ability to tell stories and animate them with expression. She was not excited that they had liked the proposal and wanted to schedule an interview recording. In fact, she said that perhaps not enough people had applied and that is why they had chosen us! I laughed and reassured her that they saw something special in her story, much like I had. In preparation for the interview, I gave her questions to read through as homework and I took her to breakfast at the Filling Station in Orange, my hometown, before we went to the Getty to practice some of the questions and take notes.

Now, a few months later, I have revisited our interview and have again taken notes to highlight some points here in this post. The actual interview, given to us a few weeks later via mail, is available here for your downloading, if you’d like.

Perhaps you may want to listen to the interview in its entirety or just bits and pieces, or perhaps you simply want a takeaway message: interview someone. Formally or informally, but considering making a recording to keep with you and reflect on. Or at least, take notes in a journal. Start a journal of interviews. More broadly, in everyday life, take the role of an active and eager listener and choose a theme to ask questions. Make daily conversations about the other person and not about you, perhaps at all. We, as people, have a tendency to turn “you” into “I”, and while this conversation turn often shows connection, it takes the focus away from the other person. What we, as people, need more than anything else in this world is empathy and I believe the most powerful way to become more empathetic, and to actively create empathy, is to practice being active listeners. We need more focus on the other than the ego. Through practice, you will notice a change in yourself too; I can promise this.

You will find that in this process of focusing on the other you discover things you’ve never known, and perhaps that the other person thought they had forgotten… We live much of our lives inundated with the present -and the future- that we forget to smile at all of the wonderful moments that happened in our past, too. I sometimes hear people say to only focus on the present and to forget the past as though there is this need to breakaway from who we were. True, it’s important not to dwell on the past as a form of self-deprecation or live in its glory as a form of escapism, but there is a need for reflection because our minds are our ultimate home and we can test our comfort in this home when we find ourselves in solitude. If we are not comfortable in our own minds, where will we ever be comfortable? So as an interviewer -or simply, as an active listener- perhaps we can help others find their own comfort whether through the generation of wonderful memories or confrontation of the more difficult ones. Ultimately, I believe, you must listen without judgment and with every conviction that the person with you is a radiant one. I truly hope that someone will reciprocate and be an active listener with you too.

I believe that you will find when you truly listen, the speaker is awakened. They are alive in the details, images, sounds, and moments in their mind. They feel present with those who have passed, and for my mother that includes very important people like her grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, neighbors, friends, and so forth. I also believe that by act of reliving through memories those people who are not here anymore, they become alive again. And by sharing her story with someone who truly listens, they will be immortalized. That is the power of stories.

This interview is now reserved in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and because my mother is Mexican American, also at The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. I am so grateful for the StoryCorps and their efforts to bring people together through the very natural and human act of sharing stories.

Things about Cecilia Ann Laidemitt that I learned:

My mother first remembers living in a home that did not have an indoor bathroom in Flood Ranch, a part of LA. Rather, there was a hole in the backyard with boards around it.

My mother was named Cecilia because she was born around the time of the Battle of Sicily in World War II. Her father fought in this war. I did a little Wiki search:  “The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, was a major World War II campaign, in which the Allies took Sicily from the Axis Powers (Italy and Nazi Germany). It was a big amphibious and airborne operation, followed by a six-week land campaign and was the beginning of the Italian Campaign. Husky began on the night of 9/10 July 1943, and ended on 17 August.” She was born on July 10th.

As a child, my mom spent a lot of time “studying” rabbits and chickens with her younger brother. There was a mean rooster that would attack as soon as they opened the door to the chicken coop.

My grandparents sold rabbit to neighbors for $2.50. My mother ate so much rabbit as a child that she cannot eat it anymore as an adult. I now know what I should feed her on her birthday.

My mother, who has been in education for 50 years as of this year, had her own classroom and gathered the neighborhood children and her brother for class. In her words, “It was a real school” and she sent notes home.

My mother’s family didn’t have a TV until 1950, the year her grandmother passed away. She, like my nephew Wyatt now, would tell her younger brother to “Go ask Momma if we can watch TV.” Oh, older siblings…

In her words: “I would read the news everyday.” “Ever since then, I’ve had this thing about reading the news, keeping up with the news.” To this day, my mother reads the news everyday; literacy for her is a lifelong passion and I believe instilled the same in me by seeing her read all the time.

Nuns lived up the street from my mother’s family. They were the same nuns who taught at her Catholic school she began attending in 6th grade. The neighborhood signed up weekly to feed the nuns and “When it was Honey’s (her mother) turn to prepare the meal, she would take the food to the nuns who lived up the street from her family.”

Related to being Mexican American growing up: “Something that came up… The neighborhood that we moved into did not have any Mexican American people living there. And when the neighbors found out that we were moving in they were a little concerned that maybe the neighborhood was going down… And so once they got to know us, you know, they realized, no, these are nice people. … I think we were the only Mexican American family who lived in that part of the neighborhood. … They were really amazed because they thought the house would get run down… but my mom was always out there watering, fixing things up… and she kept everything up. … And we were actually real people.” That resonated with me, the words of “real people.” How often do we think of some people as less real than ourselves? If we do not view each other as real people, how will we, as humans, ever find compromise amid so much difference? In other words, we are all the same, but we are also different. We must accept both truths.

At the end of the interview, my mother and I both said thank you. She said the interview “brought back a lot of memories; they’re in your head, but you’re not conscious about them.”

There are many forms of learning sites in the world, and whether or not you find yourself in a classroom as a student or teacher these days, let us all be teachers and students. Let us learn from each other.

Happy Birthday, Mamita, or Chila, and even Husky, which is not entirely appropriate but very fitting because of new details I discovered 😉 May your stories live on.

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