August 18 marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote (but, for most women of color, the right to vote would not be realized until the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965). At the time the amendment went into effect, my two grandmothers were living in separate states, each one a young wife and mother who was managing the difficult responsibilities of home and family, yet until then had not been entrusted with the right to vote. On the day of the anniversary, I received a text from my sister saying that the occasion had caused her to think about our two grandmothers. She reflected, “All of a sudden I thought of them, and wished that I had talked with them about this, when they were still living. to ask for their perspective on finally getting their voting rights.” Her final lament: “It hit me that I should have thought about this long ago.”
Many are the times I’ve thought myself about rich and enlightening conversations I could have had with family elders in days gone by, when I was younger, and they were still around. Like my sister, I am left to ponder: why didn’t I think of these things sooner?
There are many kinds of conversations to be had with people in our lives. Sometimes, as in the example given of my grandmothers, it is a conversation about life in another place and time.
Sometimes, it is a conversation that helps us gain understanding of our own past. Here’s a for-instance: from time to time I’ve thought of particular events which occurred in my childhood, that my mother could have shed light on. Although I think of myself as a fairly open and inquisitive person, it never dawned on me while in my younger adulthood, that I could have simply asked her about those events. By the time I even thought of that as an option, mom was too old to have those conversations. Now, I can only look back and wish we’d had them.
It’s true, in some cases the windows of opportunity are closed, but let’s keep in mind that some windows are open right now or will be open in the future. This is where conversations “we wish we’d had,” can become conversations that actually happen; conversations with the potential of making a real impact on our life, because they tell us something that we didn’t know. Maybe we will find that someone has a need, for which we have tools to help. On a completely different note, maybe the conversation will give us an eye-opening view into another individual’s perspective.
The trick is to be ready and willing when the moment presents itself. Opportunities can be missed if we do not recognize them for what they are. But even if we do see an opportunity in the moment, it doesn’t mean it will always be easy. Some conversations may require a little courage on our part, but I have found through personal experience that often, the payout is well worth our bravery and effort.
When I think about conversations with this kind of transformative power, some of the following situations come to mind:
Someone in your life is struggling with the same, or similar, situation as you, but neither of you realizes it. Until you have a conversation.
Someone with whom you share a common experience, came away with a completely different perspective than yours. You always took for granted that they saw it the way you did - until you had a conversation.
You have information, tools or connections that could help someone in your life who is struggling. You don’t know that person is struggling, and that person doesn’t know you have something that can help. Until you have a conversation.
Your parents had challenges or experiences in their past that you had no idea of. Understanding them could shed new light on your childhood. A conversation is the beginning of that understanding.
You are considering decisions that will impact someone else’s life. While you are responsible for their well-being, such as a child or an elder, you realize that you haven’t actually asked for their voice in the matter.
A family has been coping with a difficult situation for a while, yet everyone has been dealing with it as individuals. Someone realizes that the strength of many is greater than the strength of one and begins encouraging family talks.
Of the conversations mentioned above, some will happen with advance planning, but others are often the result of providence, or lucky timing. Those unplanned moments, when taken advantage of, have the potential to produce a conversation that is truly a game-changer. When this happens, we are often left feeling extremely grateful that it did.
Whether it’s the richness of a family story we are blessed to hear, or a new understanding that can change our life, I hope that missed opportunities we are left to ponder, will be replaced with moments where we find ourselves saying, “I’m so glad we talked.”