Spending an afternoon with my grandparents is like falling into a time warp. For one, they live in the middle of flat Indiana farmland, their house butting up against a thick stand of trees. There’s no T-Mobile coverage out there, that’s for sure. They also wouldn’t dream of owning a computer and the neighbors are far enough away that the hijacking of an unprotected wireless network is an impossibility. Emails don’t come in, calls won’t go out, text messages won’t even send. In a word, when I’m at my grandparents’ house, I’m simply disconnected.
At first, I’m fidgety. I’ll check my phone a hundred times, willing emails to magically come through. That lasts about a half hour before I finally give in to the inevitable – I’m not going to be able to connect with the outside world as long as I’m inside those brick walls. It’s at that point that I get up from their dining room table (which is the center of all family gatherings), go into the living room, and slide my phone into my purse. My eyes move over their ancient Zenith TV, which I know will come on later, after everyone leaves, so that they can watch their favorite shows on the RFD channel. Once I drop back into the chair, I’m now more relaxed. No internet means no distractions. This is the point when the conversation actually starts.
Mamaw and Papaw were both born in 1934. They survived the Depression, then entered their formative years while the entire world was at war. They were both insulated from it, of course, growing up on farms in central Indiana, but they still have stories of rationing, of family members who went off to war, of the way things used to be. As they talk and as I ask them questions, I get lost in their world – the world of their past, but one of which is unceasingly fascinating to me. Before I know it, two or three hours have passed.
This was such the case on Saturday. As I’m in the preparation stage of my World War II-era novel, it has become startlingly clear that if I want to ensure that my manuscript feels authentic, they are the people I need to spend time with. They remember shortages of sugar and coffee, of how they felt when someone they knew went to war but didn’t come home, and how it was to only get bits and pieces of news. Researching those experiences teaches me a lot, yeah. But hearing about them first hand, having the opportunity to wrap my head around the emotions intertwined with those experiences – that stuff is far more powerful than any web query done in the name of research.
I’ve made plans to go back out to their house and ask a lot of questions. Most of these questions have never been broached by anyone in our family, so in a sense, I’m going to be recording family history. I want to know everything – from their earliest memories to their lives on their farms to how they met and fell in love. I want to hear any and all of their recollection of the war years – what it felt like, how they endured shortages and worry, and how it changed them. I’m so lucky at my age to have them in my life still and I need to take advantage of it before anymore time passes.
Still though, I know I’ll deal with the anxiety of being disconnected from modern society when I’m there. It happens every time, and my reaction is worse now, thanks to the invention of smartphones and tablet devices. I’m always, always connected. The question, though, is connected to what? Human connection with these people, who are absolute treasures, are worth having to wait a few hours to answer a text message or respond to an email. I’m wondering if frequent disconnection won’t help me connect to the world around me, and my writing, more. If that’s the case, I’m game.