Time was running out. The 52 minutes Mel had allotted for the story of my life were almost up. He looked at the clock, turned to me, and asked one last question:
“How do you want to be remembered?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
A pretty good line, I thought, even if only the second half was true.
What was I doing, anyway, making a video of my life story? That sort of thing has always struck me as pretentious and futile. Even if you had all the time to ponder and prepare, would you want to summarize yourself for posterity in 52 minutes?
But Mel, a patient and distant acquaintance, is 92 years old. When he told me his hobby was making videos of people’s lives and suggested I make one myself, I set aside my principles and agreed. Maybe I wanted to be remembered as someone who listens to his elders. Or maybe I just wanted to indulge a guilty pleasure that wouldn’t get me arrested.
So I met with Mel in the wood-paneled conference room in his tony senior living complex. Mel had emailed me a list of interview questions, and suggested I modify them if I wanted. I did that, but he didn’t print out my list. Although I handed him my copy, he stayed mostly with his own generic script.
Even if you don’t know exactly how you want to be remembered, there are some basics that frame your self-presentation for the frame of the video camera even before it’s turned on. In my case, you get your hair cut and beard trimmed, you put on a tidy blue shirt with a red tie neatly knotted, and you insert new stays to keep the shirt collar perky.
Of course, that’s not how I usually look. My tie is usually off to one side, and the stays are often gone, fried in the wash, unless my wife nabs me to put in new ones before I escape out the door in the morning.
And Mel had a list of suggestions: Smile, look straight at the camera, don’t say anything negative that you wouldn’t want recorded.
So before you even say anything, you present yourself as neat, calm, and happy. Everything actual life is mostly not. It’s really the same impulse as the one applying to that more common form of self-memorializing: taking a picture. You stand up straight, you smile. You don’t want people to remember you as a grouchy shlump, do you?
“How did you get involved doing this?” I asked Mel. (I like finding out why people bother to do things.)
“Twenty years ago we visited my family’s shtetl,” he said. “I told my brother, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to know where our ancestors went to school, where they went to market?’ Back home I started to do these video interviews so people could say where they came from and how they lived. I’ve done about 85 of them.”
So that was it: his motives were less personal than genealogical. He wondered where his ancestors went to cheder and bought groceries. Would you like your descendants to remember you that way?
I’ve never really understood the roots thing. I guess if you climb your family tree and somewhere on a high branch pluck a forebear who was grand rebbe of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, or Shabbetai Tzvi’s accountant, that would be interesting. But it’s more likely that you’ll study ship’s manifests, online files of moldering Polish municipal records, and gravestone rubbings, only to learn that your remote fourth cousin thrice removed, Tuvia Malachamovess, was a shoemaker in Shnipishok in 1835. Is that interesting? What would you know about Tuvia, besides his trade? Would you know how he lived, how he died? Would you know what he thought about his parents, his wife, his work, his life, his god? Would you know how his children turned out, what his opinion was about the elephant and the Jewish question? Would you know anything about Tuvia that Tuvia himself would have wanted you to know, had someone troubled to ask him how he would like to be remembered?
Mel read mostly from his own question list, so some inquiries were a bit off-point. (Q: Where were you on Pearl Harbor Day? A: Unborn yet for 5 years.) Others were more relevant (schools, marriage, career). There was no chance for me to report my shopping preferences (Shaw’s Market and Trader Joe’s, for the most part). I wanted to get in a few words about my children and grandchildren. “But we’re talking about your life,” said Mel. “Yes,” I replied.
In a while Mel will send me a DVD of the interview, which I solemnly promise to never look at. I will place it in the safe deposit box, where some day someone may make of it what they will.
Which is the point. Retiring politicians, literary, and sports figures take public pains to shape their “legacy.” They collect their papers for storage in official libraries, hire authorized biographers, lobby for induction into halls of fame. But future generations study, understand, and judge them by their own standards and for their own purposes.
When it comes to us private folks, those who remember us, if and when they do, will also have their own purposes: because they are writing a book; because their teacher asked for a report on where Bubbie and Zayde came from (in turn driven by the agendas of those who write curricula); because their genealogy group is having a Shnipishok day. Why they remember us will be their call, not ours.
Like the search for the Fountain of Youth or the quest for immortality, the impulse to think you can influence how you will be remembered is tantalizing and delicious. It’s a charming conceit, a pleasant daydream, like picturing yourself hitting a homer in the bottom of the ninth to win the Series. As fantasies go it’s harmless enough, and you never know: it actually could happen. People have hit homers. Oprah could call.
But until she does, just comb your hair and straighten your tie, will you?