The next voice you hear | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Feb 08, 2017

I’ve had a couple of good ideas over the past few months, which strikes me as being toward the high end of my usual ratio. I’m sure I’ve gone years between decent ideas before. I can probably tell you which years.

I’m not talking about decisions. We all make dozens of those every day, from socks to salad dressing. Some are good and some are bad, I guess, but most of them are irrelevant when it comes to value. We just need to choose and move on.

I’m talking about ideas. And I’m talking about the worst possible kind of ideas, which are the kind that involve predicting how other people are going to behave. These ideas are better off being left to professionals, the best of whom are very good at figuring out what other people are going to do.

So I’ll take my two good ideas and just be grateful that nothing bad happened, although one of them was more surprising than the other.

My siblings and I recently threw an 80th birthday party for my mother, and as the big day got close it occurred to me that we should put together some sort of slideshow or film tribute to our mom, with family photos and some scraggly videotape from years ago.

This is not one of the good ideas, by the way. It’s a pretty common idea, and I’ve had the good fortune to watch it done over and over again, in various ways, by a master at this sort of thing, picking out stray moments from old photo albums and using them to tell a lovely story. It’s a thing of beauty when done well.

Unfortunately, this master I speak of is my mother. She’d be the one I’d ask for help. And she’s the one who has most of the family photos. You can see the problem.

My good idea was this: I suggested that we ask our kids, my mother’s grandchildren, to use their phones or tablets or web cams and record a little video tribute, which I’d edit together into a film we could show her on the big day.

There was some reluctance. Others were a little more interested in doing it, but all of them turned in their homework, more or less on time, and that’s when I learned it was a good idea.

Speaking from personal experience, the first decade-plus of the 21st century has been a blessing to long-distance grandparents. Not only is travel much cheaper and easier than 50 years ago, but technology, for all its pitfalls, arrived just in time for some of us. It doesn’t matter how technophobic you might be – if your grandchild shows up on Skype, you will learn how to Skype.

My mother got married at 18, and by her 23rd birthday she was about to give birth to her third child. She became a grandmother at 44, and the number grew over the next 15 years to seven. Over those years, too, the families would spread out, leaving her with grandkids dotted around the map, long before video chatting was a thing.

This is when Mom got one of those good ideas I was talking about. She took a cassette recorder (young people, ask an older person) and recorded stories for her grandchildren, the kind she used to read to her own kids. Bedtime stories, personalized and arriving in the mail from time to time.

I remember this, if faintly. It seemed a cute idea to me at the time, but I was busy figuring out this parenting business, along with this adult business. I didn’t quite understand what was going on, not then.

Not until a few weeks ago, in fact, when the videos started arriving in my email box. There was my nephew, now 30 years old, looking into the camera and describing the excitement of receiving those cassettes in the mail, and how soothing it was to him, “not a calm child,” to listen to his grandmother read.

My own daughter spoke of reading to her son and suddenly realizing she recognized a particular story, and why. “I went to sleep every night listening to your voice,” she said, only after becoming a parent understanding how all those years, all those hours of recordings, had stayed alive in her memory, just waiting to be told again.

“It was a stroke of pure grandma genius,” she said, echoed by her cousins, all of whom are now adults and have the judgment to know a good idea when they find one waiting in the mail.

I also know what good ideas look like, even if I usually stumble across them by accident. I was just sort of desperate to put a video together, a little late in the day. I had no idea that the best testimony to the character of a person is often delivered by the least among us.

The ones who have been quietly assisted, who have been fed and sheltered, who have been loved unconditionally and consistently. The ones who have been read to, who have been told stories and learned lessons.

We know we’re supposed to read to our children. No one argues that point. It just never occurred to me that they would remember the stories, or that they might, and that they’ll remember who was reading, and what a good idea it was.

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