Earlier this summer my cousin, Sara, and I sat on my aunt’s couch with my 86 year-old grandmother between us. We asked her questions and then listened as she talked about her life growing up on Seneca Street as the eighth of ten children, about playing hopscotch and paper dolls, about how she wished she had stayed in school past the age of 16. She told us about rationing during World War II and about how my grandpa bought his first Ford and then started “coming around” to see her. She admitted her years of worry and how she’s not ashamed to say she’s “done a lot of praying” for her children, grandchildren, and now her great grandchildren. This woman whose life has centered around her family, her table, talked about how she preferred a full table, a noisy house. “I was always glad to see you coming, and hated when you left,” she said. “And the more that came the better.” She lived a life of practical hospitality — always making enough dinner for whomever she expected and then some extra for any guests — or strangers — who might walk through the door.
It was a beautiful day of listening to a woman who isn’t always the first to speak, one who is usually standing in the kitchen while she pushes everyone else to have a seat, one who has never given a lot of unsolicited advice.
My family is very close, but not overly affectionate. We are rational, Midwestern apple farmers. We gather — whoever is able to make it — weekly, but few “I love you’s” are spoken, though they are known. Few hugs are given, unless someone is leaving for months. We value stories, laughter, and being together, but we don’t always know how to say all that. We are good at showing up, but not always good at talking about it.
So, when my cousin brought up the idea of inviting my grandma for an interview, I hesitated. I quietly worried Grandma would think it was silly, worried she wouldn’t want all that attention, all that feeling. But as Tuesday afternoon ended, she must have thanked us no less than 10 times.
I’m still processing that afternoon and there are 10 more essays I could write about the experience, but my mind keeps coming back to that simple act of acting questions and then being quiet enough to listen. I’ve been thinking about all the questions I’ve missed asking because I’ve been busy talking, doing, or thinking.
As a teacher, I do lessons on questioning. I encourage my students to ask “thicker” questions as readers, to dig deeper, to push more. I more often need to take my own advice.
When my own sons ask me a question, I’m too often too busy to listen or looking for the quick answer, the right answer, instead of questioning back, instead of taking the time to stop and wonder together. While a bit of space from my kids is healthy and needed (those times when I say: go down to the basement, outside and I don’t want to see/hear you for 30 minutes), it’s those moments I slow down to sit with them, to be with them, that they have a chance to say the things I don’t hear amid life’s usual background noise.
In this wild world of violence and terror and division, (and that just covers the presidential election) we may need to stop and ask more questions. When someone says something we disagree with, our initial bent is almost always toward defensiveness. But maybe we don’t need to fix it. Fix them. Maybe we can just ask more questions.
There is almost always more brewing below the surface than we can first see — and a lot of ground can be made up in the space created between questions and answers.