Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Interviewing Older Relatives

A few days ago, I visited the 24/7 Family History Circle ( and one of their main articles is entitled "Call A Family Member". After I read the short article, I realized that I hadn't called my family members in Washington in a very long time. The generation that still lives up there is getting older and I knew I better call, even if it was just to talk, before it was too late.

Often times, we don't ask questions about our family history or even just about everyday life until it is too late. Little clues and stories that can be so valuable to your genealogy can disappear if you don't act fast.

So, I decided to get on the phone and call my Auntie Shirley. Auntie Shirley is actually my great aunt who lives in a Seattle apartment all by herself. She is getting near 90 now and she is blind, but she refuses to give up her independence. While she sometimes gets lonely, she fills her time by volunteering at the Seattle Science Center, where she runs a spinning art exhibit (That is the best way to describe it) and she stays with any kids that get lost.

My Auntie Shirley is a very interesting person and has lived a life that is more full than I could've imagined. She has never been married - and honestly, she is too much of a free spirit to be held down. As we got to talking, she told me stories of the 1940s, when swing music ruled the night clubs. She told me stories of singing and dancing with the soldiers as they came home from World War II. As it sounds, she was the life of the party - and parties didn't really start until she walked into the room.

She told me a story about her being in a parade (what the parade was for, she can't remember). She said that as she was sitting in a nice car, waving to the crowd, Frank Sinatra pulled up very close behind her car. He asked if she wanted to dance and she accepted. They had the music turned up real loud and they jumped out of their cars and began dancing - right in the middle of the street! She said that he had wonderful rhythm...and while I wonder if this story is true, it really doesn't matter to me.

I don't care if the story is just her imagination gone wild or if the story really has some accuracy because just listening to her voice light up as she told the story made the entire thing worth it. The story means something to her, and that is truely what I was going for.

See, interviews with older relatives don't have to be just dates and places and names. They can be stories that, while sometimes exaggerated, bring your family to life. The names, dates, and places are wonderful - but nothing makes your family history more rewarding that finding out how your ancestors lived their lives.

So - where exactly do you start when interviewing relatives? Good question, and there are a bunch of different approaches that you can take.

First, you're going to need some supplies...
  • The number one thing I suggest is some sort of recording device - the most widely used of which is probably a basic tape recorder. These are especially helpful if you are doing the interview face to face. Make sure you test it a few times to make sure that you hear everyone on the tape and make sure you bring extra tapes!
  • The next thing you are going to need are a pen/pencil and paper. You're going to want to take notes as you go along, because you never know when you'll think of a good question for someone else or a special note you'd like to include in your family tree.
  • A copy of your pedigree and maybe even a family group sheet or two so that you can understand how all the names fit in.
  • Lots and lots of patience!! Don't make family members feel rushed or pushed. Sometimes, they truly don't know something - so don't make them feel ashamed for it.

Next, you're going to need to figure out how you'd to conduct your interview. Do you want it to be a casual conversation or do you want it to be more formal and with a focus?

If it is going to be more formal, remember not to make it an interrogation. All I mean by formal, is that you have questions carefully laid out.

Now - how do you go about picking questions. Well, that really depends on how the person fits into your family tree, the information that you have missing in your family tree, and the time period for which they lived and would probably remember.

You can always stick with the tried and true basics:

  • When and where were you born?
  • When were your parents married? How did they meet?
  • What schools (if any) did you go to and did you graduate?
  • Can you remember any wars in your lifetime - how did they affect you?
  • What was it like living in the {insert blank decade or time period here; example: the 60s}?
  • When did you get married? How did you meet
  • When were your parents born? Where?
The list of questions that you can ask could go on and on...they really are limitless.

Warning: Don't ask questions that could make people uncomfortable. Generally, you'll be able to find the answers to such questions through some other way. For example, I tried asking my grandfather what his parents were like - he instantly tensed up and told me not to concern myself with such things. Through census records and the information I could gather from other people, my great-grandparents had been married and had a few children, the last of which was my grandfather. Shortly after, my great-grandmother came down with TB and died, causing my great-grandfather to immediately remarry. This hurt my grandfather although he will never admit it. He quit school and spent most of his time away from his house. Once he was of age, he immediately joined the Navy and left home...never speaking to his father or step mother again.

If you are going with the casual route for the interview, the pick a few general questions and let the conversation flow naturally. Ask questions when it seems appropriate or for clarification.

After the interview - enter the information into your family tree and made transcripts of any tapes that you have.

But the number one thing I can offer as advice would be to enjoy the moment and to enjoy your family member. You never know when you won't be able to do it again.