Bringing Great-Grandma’s Voice to Life on Video

During dinner the other night, my son was telling me about their biography unit in social studies. His teacher had asked the class if anyone in their family was originally from another country. “You raised your hand, right?” I asked expectantly. He shook his head. “Grandma Mintz! Annette! The woman you were named for. She was from Russia!” I exclaimed, frustrated he hadn’t remembered.

He then shared how his teacher was originally from France, but because she came here under the age of 12, she had lost her accent. Her brother, however, was 12 when they arrived, and still had a French accent today.

My grandmother Annette, shortly after emigrating

I began to re-tell the story of how his great-grandmother came to Baltimore when she too was 12, having escaped pogroms on horseback. How her thick Russian accent left such an impression on me, that it wasn’t until early adulthood that I realized having an old world accent wasn’t a requirement for being a grandparent.

Then I got excited. “Do you want to hear her accent? Why don’t we watch the first few minutes of the film I made about Dad’s family?”

What started out as a few minutes of evening entertainment while eating ice cream grew into an hour-long event. After he had watched a few minutes, I said we should probably get ready for bed and watch the rest another day. But he insisted on watching more. And even after watching a very sad part where he learns how his great-grandfather died, he still wanted to watch to the end.

There were many other things my son could have done that night. But he chose to watch his family’s story. And for the first time, he started to not just understand, but relate. When he realized his great uncle was only 8 years old when his father died – the same age he is right now – he thought that was just about the saddest thing he’d ever heard. “So it would be like if my Dad died right now?” he questioned at the impossibility. We both got teary-eyed and hugged.

Though I know he didn’t understand all of it, I feel like having this video to show him was just about one of the greatest things I’ve been able to give him.

Seeing and hearing the woman he was named for (from 20-year-old VHS tapes), hearing about her strength, and listening to his grandpa and great uncles talk about their formative years, with pictures to illustrate, made such an impact. He had just been with his great uncles the day before at a Mother’s Day brunch. Before, he likely saw them as people to just kiss and hug hello and goodbye. Now I think he really understands who they are and why they are important to us.

I think people sometimes wonder when is the right time to capture your family stories. I was compelled to make this particular film because I was fearful that a family member’s illness would prevent us from making the film. But not everyone has something that spurs them into action. So I’ll leave you with this thought.

When you realize how sad you will be not to have these stories around for your children and future grandchildren to hear – that is the right time. And the next best time will be when you get to enjoy watching those stories with them.