28 November 2011

Interviewing Relatives

Now that you've gathered all you know, it's time to talk to your family. This can be done in one of two ways:

In a casual conversation, you can get a lot of random bits of information. I've found this is a good way to talk to older relatives that just don't have a linear thought process. It's also best for anyone uncomfortable with the idea of "interrogating" their relatives. You've really spent most of your life using this kind of process to learn about your family, you've just never cared to listen as much as you do now. Easiest way to start this conversation is just to say, "Hey, relative, I've been doing some research on the family tree and I was wondering if you had any photos or stories I could get." People love telling stories. Now, this approach means you'll get plenty of bull along with the truth, but the stories are important. Ever since Man had a history, he's wanted to tell someone about it hoping they'll pass it on. The bulk of human history has been oral; it's a time honored tradition. Now, some genealogists write these stories down from memory, I prefer using a voice recorder. First, I don't forget the details. Second, I find it a great addition to the media for my tree to have the actual story teller. I used this one with my dad, just told him I wondered about all the photos on the wall and he started talking. Pointed out his paternal grandmother with her five sisters, his cousins, his mother as a young (and very beautiful) woman. He told me stories of his childhood like digging out from a bad Chicago snow storm and who his best friends in high school were. And the stories of the Navy that I'd heard a hundred times, but now put more stock into. The way he tells some of these funny and touching stories would be lost to anyone I told them to. So now, I play back the recording and people laugh and say "God, no one tells it like Lou!"- and ain't that the truth. And the thought that great great grandchildren, who will never have a chance to meet my father will still hear the story straight from the horse's mouth is a beautiful thing.... While I did get a bit of "sure that happened", I did end up with one little gem that could help me later. It seems my Great Grandmother may not have been married to her husband when she had my Grandfather. And that it may have been her sister who introduced the two for the specific purpose of marrying off an unwed mother.... to her husband's cousin. So we're still blood, but not to Great Grandpa, maybe. Again, grain of salt. This was something he heard as a small boy and people didn't talk about that sort of thing loudly. He may have misheard...... or not. So that gets a note with a star to keep an eye out. Dad didn't know which sister was married to Great Grandpa's cousin, and he may have been a brother, he was confused. But it's a step in the right direction on an otherwise dead end. We never really talked to grandpa about his family. He didn't like his mother and definitely hated his, uh, "father". And now that he is gone, dad is the oldest living relative I can ask about it.

Another way to start this is to just say you are working on the family tree and want to know what they know. You'll get "oh, I don't know much.", so this start takes a little more than asking dad to tell you his football stories again, but you get better traction as far as direction. This worked with my maternal grandmother. I asked her for what she knew, she said nothing. I said, "Well, I'm coming over Thursday. Crack out the photo albums and we'll start there." And what did I get? Both her parents had previous marriages and children. Got their names, though she couldn't remember birthdays. Then she told me her first husband's name (I knew she had been married with three kids, but didn't know his name). That was like pulling teeth, because she didn't think it was important. Maybe, maybe not. While the first husband doesn't matter, it's a part of my grandmother's life. And that's as precious as platinum to me. My great find here? Oh so many. My Great Grandmother was Lithuanian descent, Scottish born. She had at least two brothers and a sister. One brother stayed in Scotland and his family is still there. The other siblings came to the States prior to Great Grandma. Oh and one of my Great Uncles has been working on the family line of Great Grandpa, would I like his email? Are you for real, old woman?????
Above all else, remember not to throttle your relatives. They just don't know any better.

The point of a casual conversation is to just let it flow. Get what you can and make frequent visits. Above all else, cherish the moment. You are making a memory that you can pass on in your own time.

Interview works well if you have a list of questions that you need to answer, or your relative is a more to the point kind of person. To be honest, this is more my style. I am a list maker, and a bit of a straight forward gal, so I really feel comfortable with just asking relatives about names and dates. This is best if you make a list of questions first. I've made a page of starter questions to help you above. Add to these as you see fit. When interviewing, if it helps, imagine yourself as a bit of a reporter talking to a politician or celebrity. You want to get the real scoop! How old are they? Where were they born? Where did they grow up? What were their parents like? Did they have siblings? What kind of work were they in before now? Were they in the military? Inquiring minds want to know!!!!!

Not everyone can answer all the questions you have, but that's okay. And some people are just unreliable for "facts". And that's okay too. Like any good reporter, you should always check your sources! I used this style for my mother and an aunt. I already had a bit of information, so I had specific questions. I asked mom for all the birthdays, because she's usually the one sending out cards. She had alot of them, but my family is big and cousins are prolific. So I'll have to hunt many of them down and ask them about themselves and their kids...... My aunt was a bit of a dry spot. She had been doing tree research, but she couldn't remember where any of her notes were. Best I got from her was an old page her and a second cousin had put together online with her father's tree back to the first settler. It was a start, albeit an incomplete and a little out of date start.


Always remember to be sensitive to your relative's emotional state. You may unwittingly bring up a bad memory they can't deal with. Move on from it. And there is always the generational gap. Some relatives will find things too scandalous to talk about, like a bastard child or jailbird uncle. And be ready for some strange concerns. I have one aunt who requested I put no pictures of her online on my tree, because she doesn't want "just anyone getting those". That's simple enough, I honestly don't think she's even sat for a photo since she was a child. Grandma asked that my family tree not separate her first three children out, because grandpa had indeed adopted them and they were family. Well, yeah they're family. I tried to explain that adoptive parents show as primary on my online tree and that I only wanted her first husband's name for looking up records, but she was seriously worried that three of my relatives would feel slighted by being reminded they were adopted. I guess never mind the aunt from grandpa's first marriage, right? People can be weird sometimes.

- Ana

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