Part 3 in a Series
Interviewing Relatives About Family History
By Joan Stewart Smith, Guest Blogger
Families getting together for the holidays encourages us to reconnect with family members and to meet new relatives across multiple generations. This time of year is the perfect opportunity to talk to relatives and learn more about your family history.
Realize that time is running out to speak to the senior members of your clan – your grandparents, older aunts and uncles, and cousins-once-removed – because next year they may not be here to share their stories. Sadly, when they are gone, part of your family history, which often is passed word of mouth dies with them, like treasures lost forever in shifting sands.
Whatever your experience level, chatting with your family to gather information is one of the most necessary and productive activities in studying genealogy. “It is the stories that keep people alive,” says biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of such biographies as The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys. You tap into new personal information about individual family members, and you experience each as an eyewitness to history.
Tips to help you start the memories flowing
- Have a friendly conversation in a relaxed setting. You don’t want your relative to feel pressured, but chances are they will be delighted in your interest.
- Prepare a list of questions in advance, but don’t feel you have to stick to any order. Start with open-ended thoughts like: “What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your life?” “Do you remember what you were doing when you first learned President Kennedy was shot?” After you spark up the discussion, ask more factual questions, such as where you were born; where did you grow up; birth, marriage and death dates; number of children; where people lived; what they did for a living among others.
- Remember, don't just ask questions. Take part in the conversation, make eye contact, and show what you’re feeling. Let your relative’s reminisces unfold, whether they are happy or sad. My cousin remembered a fateful Thanksgiving that influenced the relationship of my grandfather and his brother on adjoining farms. But there were also happy memories: the women carrying ginger water out to the thirsty men in the cornfields, a faithful dog who protected my father as a child as he roamed across the acres, and the sight of red cardinals on the bird feeders during the harsh winter.
- To kindle nostalgia, bring photos, documents, the family tree, pedigree charts, and family group sheets, among others. Ask your relative in advance if they have any keepsakes, photos, birth-marriage-death certificates, letters, journals and other records to share. And, if it's okay with them, take photos of these important pieces of history with your smartphone or camera which will allow you to add valuable sources to all the personal data you've collected.
- Take good notes, but with permission, you can also record the conversation to save and refer to later. Because recording formats change over the years, make sure you transcribe the conversation to share with future generations.
- Show friendly interest and be thankful for their time and contribution to “our family story.” Unless you feel your relative is tiring or wants to keep going, expect that the conversation could last from one to two hours.
Chances are you will finish this fascinating family history discussion with a new heart-to-heart connection with your relative. These personal narratives link us to the past, but they also shed new light on the present, linking us to each other and our sense of family and community. Armed with the insights you gather from others, you’ll be more than ready to record new information and stories for future generations.
- 7 Beginners Tips to Start Family Tree Research
- Free Family Pedigree Charts & How to Use Them
- 10 Steps to Take After Getting DNA Results
About the Author
Joan Stewart Smith, who ranks genealogy among her favorite pursuits, is a married mom of a son who will soon be starting college. As a highly creative talent, she heads Stewart Communications, an independent consultancy specializing in PR, marketing & communications, social media, and writing. During her career, she has promoted products and services for clients ranging from fast-growing startups to established Fortune 100 companies, as well as PR and advertising agencies. Previously, she was a vice president at a leading high tech PR agency in Los Angeles. Joan holds a B.A. in English and Journalism from San Jose State University and studied in the UCLA Department of Information Studies. Follow Joan @jstewartsmith on Twitter.
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