First Person Singular: Tom Lyons, 66, videographer/filmmaker, Stories of You


Tom Lyons, 66, of Arlington runs Stories of You from his home office. (Benjamin C. Tankersley/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 20, 2011

When my mother passed away, my wife, my cousin and I went to go through her things. I remember picking up this photo album, and all these photos fell out. I was in some of them, but really, I had no idea who all these people were. There were no names, no identifiers, no dates, no places. Nothing. My mother and father had divorced when I was very young, and I’d grown up mostly with my father’s family, so I had so many questions. I just stood there, realizing how much history I’d lost — how much of my personal history was beyond my reach.

I couldn’t be the only one sifting through old photo albums, wondering who their parents really were. I went out, bought a video camera, got myself a moviemaking program for the computer and went to work. I’m going after a younger generation, people who are just now realizing that their parents are mortal, that they had full lives beyond just being parents. Because really, when we’re kids we don’t listen. Nobody listens; you’re just Mom and Dad. But now that [these] kids have their own children, they’re realizing how little they know.

It’s easier for people to talk to me because I’m an outsider, a blank slate. I don’t even ask questions during the interview. I meet with them beforehand and tell them to make an outline of what they want to talk about. Mostly, it’s just the people they loved and the places they lived. Because when you think about it, that’s a lot of what life is: people and where you call home.

A friend asked me to do this. At the very end, we’re screening the video, and he starts talking more about [his mother’s] death. He was born in Japan to Christian missionaries, so his mother spoke Japanese. He tells me, “I’m sitting by her bedside, and she’s not communicating at all. I try to talk to her. Nothing. Then I remembered reading somewhere that when you’re dying, you remember your first language. So, in Japanese I lean over and say, ‘Mom, you had a wonderful life.’ She opens her eyes and whispers, ‘Yes, a wonderful life.’ ”

Doing this, you have to face death. It’s changed the way I think about it. We’re all dying — some of us are just further along. I haven’t made my own video yet, because I’m not ready. But I will. I want my daughter to know the real me. Her mother and I divorced when she was 2. When she was 10, I started writing her letters about me. I’ve been writing them for 20 years, but stopped sending them when I found her mother was reading them. I want these letters, my photos and my own video to tell the real story of who I am. I hope she’ll watch it.

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