I began documenting my family history about 18 months ago, when my mom decided to research her father’s background. It’s a story for another post, but our journey to find her family roots has taken us to county courthouses, churches, historical centers, cemeteries and local libraries. No matter where your family came from and when they arrived in the U.S., chances are you’ll find answers to your questions by researching census forms, vital records and local newspapers.
But those facts and figures tell only part of the story. When it comes to my research, I want to know more than just a date of birth or a maiden name; I want to know who these people were. What were they like? Why did they move from one place to another? What brought them joy? These are questions that can only be answered by talking to your living relatives.
Earlier this year, my mom reunited with a long-lost cousin, one of the few remaining of mom’s generation. I was lucky enough to join mom when she shared her memories with her cousin Ruth, and peppered her with questions about her family. I have to say, for someone approaching 90 years old, she had an AMAZING memory and was able to fill in some of the blanks and solve some mysteries for me. I can’t believe I almost missed out on the opportunity to meet this amazing lady.
So my advice to anyone interested in their family’s past is this: Take full advantage of the upcoming holiday season and family visits to interview older family members and use that information to fill out your family history. Draft a standard list of questions to get the conversation started, then let your aunt, uncle, grandparent or great-grandparent tell you what they remember about growing up.
Here are some suggestions to get the conversation flowing, and to capture those memories:
- Gather up a dozen or so old photos, especially ones with unidentified people, and ask your family member what he/she knows about the photos and the people pictured in them.
- Start with some basics questions: Where did you grow up and what do you remember most about your childhood? Describe a typical holiday celebration in your family, what traditions did you follow? How would you describe your mother/father/grandmother/grandfather? Who was your favorite aunt/uncle and why?
- Tell your relative about the research you have done so far and where you are running into roadblocks; they may be able to help you.
- Take notes, but maintain eye contact and show that you are listening. If you can discretely videotape the interview, all the better.
But you don’t have to wait until a family holiday to reach out to your elderly relatives; most of them will be thrilled to share their memories with you at any time of the year!