When a loved one dies we often realize too late that a lot of memories have been irrevocably lost and we spend a lot of time wondering why we didn’t ask questions.

Becoming interested in genealogy is a real eye opener because it helps us to discover the real people who contributed to making you, you. Your ancestors are no longer just names on a cemetery marker, or one of the unknown people in the family photo vault (sometimes an old shoe box in the attic).

Often when interviewing an elderly member of the family they tend to accentuate the good things and minimize more difficult situations—the need to protect is strong.  Apart from showing your interest in knowing about people who are no longer among the living, there are ways to jog the memories, like a session of viewing old photographs .

I shared some interesting memories with my grandmother when I asked her to sing one of her favorite songs to me. The first song that sprang to her mind was “Keep the Home Fires Burning” written in 1914, which led to a discussion on what mothers and wives went through during World Wars I and II, a time when things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows.

“Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
‘Til the boys come home.”—Music by Ivor Novello words by Lena Ford.

Getting to know extended family is a bonus. Cousins and other relatives can share photos and memories that otherwise would be lost. It’s wonderful way to get a more complete picture of common ancestors. Incidents that might be a blip on the memory become significant in the broader context of the story.

If you’ve never done an oral history session before I’ve listed a few pointers to help you get started and adjust them to fit in with what you want to accomplish:

  1. Ask a relative you know well for permission to interview him or her. (In most cases it’s just hanging out and sharing a cup of tea and a chat about old times—informality is usually better).
  2. Video or sound recording the discussion would be the best scenario, but written notes are often the best way to go when the person you’re interviewing feels intimidated with technology.
  3. Create a list of questions making sure to include several that he or she will enjoy answering.
  4. Keep taking notes if your subject wanders off the topic, you might just stumble on some great material for the family history.
  5. Ask follow-up questions, such as: What else do you remember? What happened next? What did so and so do?
  6. If your subject’s memories differ from what you’ve learned, ask questions to clarify the situation.
  7. As soon as you’re done, transcribe the notes or tapes while it’s still fresh in your mind.
  8. Make a backup copy and more to share, share, share.

If you’d like to listen to Irish tenor John McCormack (1884-1945) singingf Keep the Home Fires Bunrning, click on the You Tube video. The wonderful Irish brogue shines through:

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3 Comments on On interviewing a relative

  1. Morton G. says:

    This is a terrific post. The You Tube of “Count” John McCormack was an exceptionally nice touch. You are correct to say that the old folks tend to talk about the good memories and shy away from the not so good to protect.

  2. Sarah S. says:

    I loved this post.Keep up the good work you’re site is wonderfully different and entertaining. Even if you don’t make the top 10 lists yet. By the way even genealogy blogs are politically motivated (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine).

  3. Ted M. says:

    Interesting that the subconscious pulled that song out. The elders of families are typically protective of children and grandchildren.

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