In most families, a few well-worn anecdotes are told and retold, but much of the family history has not been passed down. If your parents—or aunts or uncles or other relatives—are still alive, a link to your family history still exists. By interviewing or having informal conversations with these older relatives and possibly recording their stories, you can deepen what it means to belong to your family.
Bottom Line Personal asked Perri Chinalai of StoryCorps, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving personal stories, to share questions to ask during conversations with older relatives…
Could you paint a picture of your childhood home and hometown for me? Phrases such as “paint a picture of…” and “what do you see when you recall…” are very useful during these interviews. When you ask people to describe memories visually, you greatly increase the odds that their responses will be rich and detailed.
Example: A man who grew up in Coney Island described an idyllic wonderland with iconic amusement parks and grand movie houses where waiters took orders for treats like pie and hot dogs. “It was just the greatest place to be.”
Could you tell me about your parents? What comes to mind when you think of them? Do you remember any stories they used to tell about their lives? A conversation with a parent, aunt or uncle isn’t just an opportunity to learn about his/her life—it’s a chance to learn what we can about the generation that came before, people we might barely remember or have never met. Example: A man who grew up in New Jersey in the 1940s described his long-deceased father as a tough man but a good father. This father was proud to work in a local wire mill—he often would boast that he had helped make the cables when the family drove over a bridge. But when his son said he wanted to quit school to work in the mill, this father pushed him against a wall, got in his face and told him he was staying in school and getting a college degree—which he did. Yet even when his son was in his late teens, this tough father never failed to visit the young man’s room before turning in to say, “Good night, son. I love you.”
What were the proudest moments and achievements of your childhood? Of your adult life? The moments mentioned likely are things this person would love to have descendants remember.
Example: A 93-year-old retired nurse from Tennessee told her grandson that nursing was “the most rewarding profession you could have” and expressed that she was pleased that several of her children and grandchildren had followed her into the profession. She noted with evident pride that people still stopped her to say, “Oh, you took care of my boy. I will never forget you.”
What traditions or beliefs did your parents pass down to you or try to pass down to you? Family and cultural traditions can become lost in modern times. Learning these traditions—and perhaps even rekindling them—could reconnect the family to a heritage that might date back generations or centuries.
Example: A mother who grew up in the Philippines but moved to Texas as an adult described her family’s tradition of eating the big holiday meal together at midnight on Christmas Eve.
What’s your best memory of childhood? Your worst? How would you describe a perfect day when you were young? What’s the worst thing you ever did as a child? Stories from a parent’s childhood date from an era when the world—and this parent—were very different from what younger generations know.
Example: A man who grew up in Kansas in the 1940s told his nephew about the time he and three friends hopped a freight train headed west, in hopes of seeing California. When the train stopped, they imagined they must be around halfway to their destination and gave all their money—only a few dollars—to one of the boys and sent him to get food. But the boy squandered the money…and they discovered they were still in Kansas. They gave up and got a ride home.
How did you meet your husband/wife? When did you know he/she was “the one”? What was married life like before you had kids—what are your favorite stories or memories of those early years together? The early years of a relationship before children arrive can be very different from what follows—and these times often are virtually unknown to the children.
Possible follow-up questions might include, “When did you first find out you were going to be a parent?” and “What went through your mind when you found out?”
What are the biggest challenges you faced in your life, and how did you overcome them? Stories about tough times often go unmentioned—they can be difficult to relive. But these can be the stories that shape people, and descendants can draw strength from the knowledge that their ancestors were resilient.
Example: A mother told her son that she had become pregnant at 17—something she had never mentioned to him before. Her father responded to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy by kicking her out of the house. She gave her baby up for adoption, but when she did, she vowed that one day she would adopt a child who needed a home. She did—the son conducting the interview had been adopted.
Similar: Ask how this person and his/her family survived specific global events that occurred during his lifetime or his parents’ lifetimes. This might include, “How did your family get through the Great Depression?”…“Did anyone in the family catch the Spanish Flu?”…“How did your life change during World War II?”
How did you get into your line of work? Is that what you always wanted to do—and, if not, what did you want to do? Plenty of parents have never shared much about their professional lives with their kids—they kept their work and home lives separate. Similar: Related questions include, “What was your first job like?” and, “Do you have any favorite stories from your career?”
Preparing for a Great Interview
Do a little research before interviewing an older relative. Ask other family members if they can think of topics worth raising. Look through old family photos and memorabilia to find things that might spur memories, and bring these to the interview. If you don’t have family photos, you could locate photos or articles related to places where the relative had lived long ago, either online, in local history books or in old newspapers in the local library. Also ask the relative you plan to interview if there are topics he/she does not want to talk about—accidentally touching on a sensitive subject could derail the interview.
Record the interview, not only to preserve your relative’s answers, but to preserve his voice for future generations. Hearing the voice of a deceased ancestor will be a powerful experience for descendants not yet born.
During the interview, use phrases such as “Tell me more” or “What was that like?” to encourage this relative to expand on short answers. Use the conversation as an opportunity to say, “I love you”…“Please forgive me”…“I forgive you”…and “Thank you” back to the relative throughout the interview, as appropriate. The powerful book The Four Things That Matter Most by Ira Byock, MD, a physician specializing in end-of-life care, explains that these four phrases are crucial for improving relationships. Inserting them into this interview could make the interview an especially positive experience for both ancestor and descendant.