It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday. We pay tribute to moms everywhere with award-winning radio producer Dave Isay, editor of the new book Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps. Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, one of the largest oral history projects in US history. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Sunday is mother’s day. To end today’s show, we pay tribute to moms everywhere with a celebration of mothers from StoryCorps. In 2003, award-winning radio producer Dave Isay created a national social history called StoryCorps. Ev
JUAN GONZALEZ: Sunday is Mother’s Day. To end today’s show, we pay tribute to moms everywhere with a celebration of mothers from StoryCorps. In 2003, award-winning radio producer Dave Isay created a national social history project called StoryCorps. Every day, people enter a recording booth on streets all over America and tell their story. Over the past seven years, more than 30,000 interviews have been recorded, making StoryCorps one of the largest oral history projects in US history.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Isay collected some of these conversations between parents and children, husbands, wives, siblings and friends to form the basis of a new book, Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps.
Dave Isay came to Democracy Now! studios. He began by talking about StoryCorps and why he chose mothers as the subject of his latest collection of stories.
DAVE ISAY: We’ve done about 30,000 interviews now with about 60,000 people. And, you know, we had — I came on a couple years ago to talk about our first book, which was called Listening Is an Act of Love, which was an overview of all of StoryCorps. And then we knew we were going to do a theme book. So what are we going to do? It was a no-brainer it was going to be Mom. I mean, in 30,000 interviews, moms have come up in 30,000 interviews. You know, it’s our first and often our most profound bond. And we started culling into the material and just seeing this poetry and beautiful stuff, and there you go. So here’s Mom.
And, you know, but I do want to say, this is several dozen stories of kids remembering their moms or the moms being interviewed, but for us, you know, each one of those 30,000 stories is equally valuable. We look at it as, you know, a real —- as a sacred bond with participants in a very important experience in their lives. There are just some that have this kind of universal quality and this kind of poetry that make them appropriate to share with a larger audience. And that’s what you get in this book.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we go right away to the first interview, to the Wrights.
DAVE ISAY: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about this one.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, sure. This is the first interview. This is an audio excerpt. And as you know, all there are done in audio. It’s two people talking to each other in a booth.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe the scene.
DAVE ISAY: So, we have booths all over the country, and you -—
AMY GOODMAN: The first one being?
DAVE ISAY: First one in Grand Central, not there anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Grand Central Station.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, in Grand Central Station here in New York. They started charging us rent, so we moved. You know about that, right? And so, you bring — you make an appointment with anybody who you want to honor by listening to their story. It could be a friend, your mother, you know, your bus driver, anyone who you want to honor, by having them talk about who they are and what they’ve learned in life. And you bring them into this booth, and the door shuts, and you’re in this kind of sacred space. The lights are low. And you sit across from your grandma or your mom for forty minutes. There’s a facilitator who works from StoryCorps sitting in the corner of this little booth. And for forty minutes you look your mom in the eye, and you talk, and you listen. And people have very, very intense conversations in the booth.
At the end of the interview, two CDs have been burned. One goes home with you, the other stays with us and goes to the Library of Congress, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. So, someday, your great-great-great-great-grandkids can get to know your mom through her voice and stories. So it’s about leaving a legacy and reminding — you know, at its core, it’s so much of what your work is about. It reminds us that every life matters, every life matters equally. And this act of interviewing a loved one, you know, tells people that they matter and they won’t be forgotten.
AMY GOODMAN: So Nancy Wright.
DAVE ISAY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: She’s fifty-three.
DAVE ISAY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And her son, J.D.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, and they wanted — she wanted to remember her mom, whose name was Frances Guy Ericksen. And this is just a little excerpt of their conversation.
AMY GOODMAN: And J.D.'s nineteen.
DAVE ISAY: J.D.'s nineteen, yes.
J.D. WRIGHT: What was your relationship like with her?
NANCY WRIGHT: We had an interesting time, especially in adolescence. We were pretty compatible up to that point, and then I think we grated on each other’s nerves quite a bit. And our relationship went really kind of went downhill from there. She was critical of me and very judgment-laden. And finally, when I was about thirty, we were together, and it was just a miserable weekend. I felt our relationship was awful. And I told her right before I left that I couldn’t deal with that kind of criticism anymore, and it wasn’t helping me. And she said that that’s what mothers do. And I said I didn’t need a mother anymore, I needed a friend, that if she wanted to continue to try and be my mother that way, that I didn’t want that, but to call me if she wanted to be my friend. She was very angry and upset, and I kind of almost didn’t expect to hear from her, because she could be a little stubborn. It’s kind of a family trait. And I think about two weeks, though, after that conversation, I picked up the phone one day and a kind of small voice said on the other side, “Hi, this is your friend.” And it was. And we stayed friends until she died, with only occasional lapses in critical judgment. But I think I had my lapses, too.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Nancy Wright talking to her son J.D., who’s nineteen, about her mom, Frances Guy Ericksen.
DAVE ISAY: You know, I’ve been — one of the great things about having a book is you get to go into a little bit more depth in stories than you do in radio. And radio, as you know, is so powerful also, because there’s nothing more powerful than the voice. But Nancy talks about her mom leaving these huge tips everywhere she went. She said that it was her mom’s — her mom felt it was our duty in life to kind of raise the social — the economic status of waiters and waitresses across the country. And when her mom died, they left a Frances Ericksen memorial tip after her funeral of, you know, three times the size of the meal. And I’ve been on book tour for a couple weeks and have cut back on my expenses a little bit so I can also leave these huge Frances Ericksen tips, which is — really actually feels really good.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the Conleys?
DAVE ISAY: This is a story that is from the second section of Mom. The first section is called “Wisdom,” and it’s a dozen stories of wisdom of moms. And second section is “Devotion.” And Jerry Johnson brought his mom Carrie Conley to the booth. Carrie Conley was eighty at the time. Jerry was in his fifties. And Carrie had been a single mother bringing up six kids in Detroit. She worked as a tray girl, pushing food trays to patients at a hospital in Detroit. And her son just wanted to thank her. So this is an excerpt of their interview.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was the — where was the StoryCorps booth where this was?
DAVE ISAY: It was somewhere in Detroit, probably downtown Detroit.
JERRY JOHNSON: We always loved Christmas.
CARRIE CONLEY: Yes.
JERRY JOHNSON: And I cannot remember one Christmas that I didn’t feel like I was the luckiest kid in the world, even though now I realize we had hardly anything in terms of money. How’d you hold that together?
CARRIE CONLEY: Well, you know, we got one sick day a month. And if I was sick, I would still go to work. I was saving those days for Christmas. And at Christmastime, then they would pay me for those days. And you know, around the 1st of December, all the rich peoples, they would clear their children’s toy chests, and they would take all these nice toys to the Salvation Army. And I would go there, and I would get me a huge box, and I would go around and pick out nice toys. And I would get that for a couple of dollars. And then I would use the other for fruit and for food. And so, it seemed like we had a big Christmas.
JERRY JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.
CARRIE CONLEY: But I never did tell you it was Santa Claus, because I said that I cannot give no man credit for [inaudible].
JERRY JOHNSON: I know I speak for the rest of the kids who aren’t here in telling you how much we love you and how much we appreciate the sacrifice that you went through and the guidance and leadership that you were teaching us, and I I think it’s helping us all be better parents.
CARRIE CONLEY: You know, my whole heart was my kids. And the Lord blessed all of them. And I’m so grateful.
AMY GOODMAN: Carrie Conley and her son Jerry Johnson. That’s from the section of your book, “Wisdom,” then “Devotion.”
DAVE ISAY: And I just want to say that Carrie, in the book, talks about how the happiest moment of her life was watching Jerry cross the stage at Washington University in St. Louis and get his MD. And he now works as a physician in Detroit, and all her kids are doing great, doing great stuff.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you choose to divide it into “Wisdom,” “Devotion” and then “Enduring Love”?
DAVE ISAY: Well, you know, we — again, these are 30,000 interviews culled down to thirty-five interviews.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you do it?
DAVE ISAY: Well, the facilitators, who have this amazing job — I mean, their job is really to collect the wisdom of humanity, sit there and bear witness to these stories. And not only are they in the booth bearing witness and helping people, they’re also keeping a log of everything that’s said, and they also make notations about what stories might be appropriate for radio, what stories might be appropriate for a book. So we probably pulled a couple thousand stores that had been marked appropriate for a book and transcribed them. And there’s an editorial staff who kind of reads through them and puts them into different categories, and we decide which ones are going to, you know, be included in a book like this. And then, when we read through our, you know, forty favorite stories, they just kind of naturally fell into these three piles, and the chapters emerged.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about “Enduring Love,” Dave Isay.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. So these are another dozen stories of moms. And I think part of what you see from StoryCorps, what you learn from your show, you know, is that the moms in this book are really a — someone described it as kind of a Noah’s Ark of this country. It’s just everybody. And that’s what we try and do with StoryCorps. And you see whether — no matter where a mom comes from, whether she has one kid or fifteen kids, single mom, if she’s working or stay-at-home, that they all share this, you know, fierce devotion for their kids, and love. And these are stories of moms in their — and often more difficult kind of stories about their devotion to their kids.
And I think we’re going to listen to — just like, you know, moms are not — this is not a syrupy book. And some of these stories are funny, and some of them are full of wisdom, and some of them are tragic. And I think we’re going to listen to a story of tragedy. And this is Myra Dean, who came to StoryCorps to remember her son, Richard Damon Stark. He was nine years old when he died, and he was sitting with a friend of his in Texas on a patch of grass watching the sunset, when he was hit by a car.
MYRA DEAN: People used to ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he used to tell people he either wanted to be a marine biologist or a garbage man. He wanted to be ten, and he didn’t make it. A guy had been hot-rodding through our neighborhood. The car flipped over, and it landed on Rich. And all I can remember is they had pulled the driver out, and he kept saying, “Oh, my god! What have I done? What have I done?” They put me in a police car, and I just started screaming.
And the ambulance driver came to me at the hospital and said, “There was nothing we could do. He’s gone.” And I can remember having my back to the wall, and I just slid down on my butt, leaning against the wall. And he said, “Ma’am, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but he was dead at the scene.” He’ll never know what that meant to me, because one of the things that was the hardest for me was, what if he was suffering and I wasn’t there for him, you know?
And the worst part is when you realize you’re going to live, because you just want to die. I thought I wouldn’t live ten minutes, and I was astonished when I’d lived ten days and mortified when I’d lived ten months, and not even grateful yet when I had lived ten years. I was just mostly surprised. And there was no one more astonished that I 'd survived it than myself. When you lose your child, it's like somebody has just amputated a huge chunk of your heart. The difference is, people can’t see the amputation.
I miss him terribly. He was just a happy kid. It’s been a bittersweet thing that he died watching a sunset.
AMY GOODMAN: Myra Dean remembering her son in Texas. These are painful. They’re beautiful. They’re — people have mixed feelings, and that is expressed in all of this.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, and they’re authentic, you know? And that’s what — you know, we’re surrounded, as you explain on your show every day, by so much phoniness and so much spin, that when you hear people just talking from the heart and being real, it just cuts — it just cuts right through you. And that’s what — no one’s looking for fame when they’re coming to StoryCorps, and I think that’s part of the power of this project. People are just coming to connect with another human being in an honest way.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, Dave Isay, you started the Griot Project.
DAVE ISAY: Well, we have a number of projects as part of StoryCorps that are special initiatives. So we have the Griot Initiative, which is to record African American stories across the country, which recently became the largest collection of African American voices ever gathered, surpassing the incredible slave narratives that were done as part of the WPA in the 1930s. We have an initiative called Historias, which is now — which we launched about six months ago, recording Latino stories across the country. We have a 9/11 project. We have a project about Alzheimer’s disease, where families who have someone recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s come and record that person and save their memories for posterity.
And I think that’s — and you were asking me about another story to talk about. And, you know, the last story in the book, in “Enduring Love,” is — I’ve been on book tour, and I’ve gotten to meet so many people from the book. And I got to meet one of the people in this story. It’s a woman named Rebecca, who took her mother Carol Kirsch to StoryCorps. And Rebecca was about to have a baby. And Carol had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s fairly recently, although the onset was very, very fast. And they’re very close. And Rebecca wanted to save the stories and the songs of her mom before her mom couldn’t do that anymore. And when I saw Rebecca last week in San Francisco at a reading, she said that her mom was no longer able to speak. But in this interview, she was able to sing songs to the baby. As Rebecca says, “I think it would be great if you could just sing a lullaby for her, for the baby, for me and for her, and for future babies that aren’t here and aren’t twinkling in anyone’s eyes quite yet. Maybe you could sing just one of those lullabies.” And she does.
AMY GOODMAN: If people want to get in touch to tell their stories, to interview someone they care about, how do they reach StoryCorps?
DAVE ISAY: So, we have a website, which is storycorps.org. And we still — you know, we’re still relatively small. We’re working to grow into a national institution that touches the lives of every American family. We’re not there yet, but we do have booths that travel the country. We have booths now in San Francisco and New York and Atlanta, so you can make a reservation and go there. But we have these mobile booths that are everywhere. So just come on our website, and when we come to your town, just grab a slot and bring a loved one. I promise you won’t regret it. And I promise that when you bring someone to the booth, not only will it make them feel really good — and we hear from people all the time — and, Amy, you know this. I mean, this is — people say that those forty minutes of having this conversation are often among the forty most important minutes in their lives. And when you bring someone to the booth and have this conversation, you’re going to find out something, no matter how close you are to them, that you didn’t know before.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I can’t think of a situation where this is needed more than on this whole debate around immigration.
DAVE ISAY: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Because any time you can have a debate around people that are being called “aliens” —-
DAVE ISAY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- you know, someone you do not know —-
DAVE ISAY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- you’ve already set up the possibility that bad things can happen to them, because you don’t know them. And if you just meet people —-
DAVE ISAY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- if you hear people telling their own stories, speaking for themselves, there’s nothing more powerful.
DAVE ISAY: Well, and I think that gets to really the core of StoryCorps, which, as I said, reminds us that every life matters. And when you listen to these stories, no matter where they’re recorded, no matter who’s speaking — half of our interviews are held for people who might not have heard of us through public radio or through newspapers, so we’re working with immigrant rights groups or juvenile justice organizations or homeless organizations. When you hear a story, almost by definition, it’s going to be someone very different than you, but you’re going to recognize a little bit of yourself in that person. And I think that recognizing that there is so much more as a country we share in common and that we do really care about the same things and that everybody is — that every life matters and there is so much commonality to find, is extremely important. And also, you know, StoryCorps is very much a project about listening. And we do spend so much time screaming at each other in this country that I think it’s important for us just once in a while to keep our mouths shut and just listen to what other people have to say.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave, could you read a little from Lourdes Villanueva? She’s forty-nine, and she’s talking to her son Roger, Roger Villanueva, Jr. He’s thirty.
DAVE ISAY: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: This is from the section “Devotion.”
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, this is a story I know that the son brought his mom to the booth to honor her. She had been a migrant worker, and her parents had been migrant workers. And I know she talks about growing up — raising him in a car, you know, as she was working in the farms, and then really rode her kids to make sure they went to college. And she ended up going through community college and then going through college and, I think, getting an advanced degree.
And this is just Roger speaking to his mom after she’s talking about the kind of pressure she put on the kids to have them go to school.
“I don’t think anybody else loved us enough to give us that tough love. Only the people that really love you look out for you, and that’s why you pushed us. To this day I still think that had it not been for you pushing me to go to college to get my education, I don’t think I would have made it. I can honestly tell you that.
“From the bottom of my heart, I’m glad you did everything that you did. If I was to have the option to choose another mother, I would never choose anybody else but you. When I look for my partner, I always say, If my wife can be half the woman that my mother is, I will be okay. I know I’ve never told you that, but that’s the way I feel.”
And that was recorded in Florida.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of that right now.
DAVE ISAY: Great.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Lourdes. This is Roger’s mom.
LOURDES VILLANUEVA: You pretty much grew up in the back of the pickup truck. I was picking crops. And in my breaks, I had to change your diaper and do whatever needed to be done and continue on working. And I always thought that you need to do what I didn’t do, which is finish your education first.
ROGER VILLANUEVA, JR.: You always said that you were going to lead by example. And I remember when you got your GED, you were in the fields. And instead of having lunch, you would have your books, and you’d be studying. After that, I remember that you said, you know, “I’m going to community college at night.” I mean, I was just so proud the day that you graduated.
LOURDES VILLANUEVA: I had to hurry up and graduate before you guys did, because I knew you guys were coming right behind me and —
ROGER VILLANUEVA, JR.: Yeah, well, I really thought that was something special. If I was to have the choice of choosing another mother, I would never choose anybody else but you. And, when I look for my partner, I always said, If my wife can be half the woman that my mother is, I will be okay.’ And I know I’ve never told you that, but that’s the way I feel.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave, I think we will leave it there. Thanks so much for doing the work that you do. And I look forward to the next conversation, the next book and the next tens of thousands of conversations that you make sure people get to hear each other. As you said in a previous book, listening is an act of love.
DAVE ISAY: Thanks, Amy. It’s always a privilege to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps. Happy Mother’s Day, all.