Buying from Instagram ads has so far scored me only an overpriced poster of the stratosphere for my kid’s room and a supposedly mom-friendly swimsuit that ended up having asymmetrical cheek coverage. Despite that, last year I caved and did it again. And although the thing I bought —StoryWorth, a service that sends open-ended questions to the recipient every week for a year and then collects their stories into a book — was for my dad, if you’re looking for a gift for your mom this Mother’s Day, based on his reaction, I think moms would love it too.
The way it works is that you can either pick your questions from a list of hundreds, let the program randomly choose, or come up with your own. (I was, of course, tempted to write in, “Why am I your favorite child?” and pretend the service had automated that one, just to mess with my brother.) Some options include: What matters to you most in life? What’s one of your favorite trips? Has anyone ever rescued you? What advice would you give your great-grandchild? Every week for a year, StoryWorth emails the recipient the question, and all they have to do is respond to the email — no Boomer-boggling logins or forgotten passwords necessary — with their answer. Then StoryWorth emails the response to whoever we’ve set up as recipients (we went with my mom, myself, my husband, my brother, his wife, and my Aunt Caroline, who often responds with entertaining related anecdotes or rebuttals of my dad’s childhood recollections). When our year is up in June, the company will collect all of his stories — along with any images he submitted with them — in a book and send a copy to him and to me (for an additional fee).
As a big reader and an author myself, I can honestly say I’ve never been more excited for the release of a book. It’s been a true joy for me to open my inbox and see my dad’s stories each week. He seems to love it just as much as I do. He starts most entries with a quote, sometimes a deep one but often a Beatles lyric. He’s a natural storyteller who’s famous in our family for including very minor characters’ first and last names and saying mid-story, “But let me back up —” while the rest of us shout him down with “No! Oh my God, just wrap it up!” because we are unworthy of his kindness and wisdom. When he was responding to a StoryWorth prompt, however, there were no impatient family members to cut him off. I feel as if I’ve finally given him the best gift there is: just listening.
Week by week, I learned so much about my dad’s life: that my great-grandma Sophie lost a toddler to pneumonia — whom no one ever mentioned again — then stood vigilant over my dad’s bedside round the clock when he came down with it; that he, a white Jew doing volunteer training nearby, was invited by a deacon to attend packed Sunday services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Sr. warmly welcomed him to the congregation in the middle of a service; and that on very hot summer days, his dad used to bust him out of camp to take a cooling mountain swim together (a tradition I will definitely continue with my own son).
Now that my dad is nearly finished with his StoryWorth subscription, I asked him how he felt about the experience. “The questions have made me think about meaningful matters, and it was fun to reflect on a lifetime of memories,” he said. “It also gave me a reason to write out some of the family stories I’ve been meaning to record for years.”
Telling stories has always been his version of keeping a diary, and it’s now one that I get to keep too. Hopefully, one day, it will also be a gift for my son, who’s nearly 3. I feel comforted knowing that no matter what happens, we have this way for him to really know his grandfather and to get the answers to questions we often don’t get curious about until it’s too late to ask — even if we do have to skim through a ton of Beatles quotes to find them.
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