After you’ve collected everything you know, it is time to reach out to your living relatives. Every day that passes by, is one day closer to death, unfortunately. Not to be grim (though we did just pass Halloween), but this is a sincere fact of life. And I’m not necessarily talking about YOUR death; that’s another discussion about YOU getting YOUR genealogical records in order. I’m talking about our older relatives and even those our own age. The time is now to talk to them, to interview them regarding their memories of the family history. Each person will have their own side to every story, their own memories about family events, and so it is so important to ask as many relatives as possible about family events.
There are some great online resources to help you with questions that can prompt family members to talk.
Linda Spence, Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History
Kirk Polking, Writing Family Histories and Memoirs
I have found that paper forms are very handy to use when interviewing relatives when you can sit down with them face-to-face. They can help prompt them to talk about things that they had forgotten. If they see a blank on your form and they know that information, they are often willing to share. Currently, I recommend phone calls or Zoom meetings for you family history interviews. And during this time when we are all so isolated, some of those older relatives would probably really appreciate the call.
It seems that sometimes cousins know more about my direct line than I do because they were more willing to gossip about something not affecting their nuclear family units. Ask cousins what they know about a particular family event and see what kinds of stories you hear.
If they are comfortable being recorded, do that so you don’t have to be a furious note-taker while they are talking. If you are using Zoom, that is quite easy. You can also set up your phone to record voices or go old-school and use a tape recorder if you still have one. Come prepared with charts and questions. Share with them pictures, documents, and information you’ve already collected. This often jogs their memory.
Here are some topics:
Important life events
Most of all, this is supposed to be fun and engaging. So, make some time to make some calls either by phone or zoom. As the holidays approach in this weird year, reach out and have some family history conversations with your family members.
I am a mom with two children still at home. When I began this genealogy journey my son was just 5 months old. He’s almost 13 now and my daughter is 10. Sometimes it’s a challenge to get them to be involved and not grumpy when the car takes a side trip to visit a cemetery or library. When I take a research trip to Wood County, Ohio I am usually there to visit my family and often our trips are too short. I like to combine the research with the visiting to maximize the time we have together: “Hey grandma, let’s go to the cemetery and you can tell me about your great-grandparents and their families.” Taking your family along on research expeditions can be a fun way to get them talking about your ancestors and getting them more interested in what you are doing.
I’m not above bribery. When I take my children to a cemetery I offer them a small fee (25¢ for even looking) and a prize for who finds the tombstone (50¢). It motivates them and makes it easier for me to have little energetic legs tromping around the cemetery. My son is especially good at finding the tombstones. I don’t know how many times I’ve taken him to the cemetery, given him the name we are looking for and he’s off in a flash, zig-zag across the cemetery. In no time at all I hear “found it!” sometimes even before I’ve had a chance to get started! (By the way, he is for hire.)
With the older family members it is sometimes just nice to get them out of the house and to a place they probably haven’t been in a long time. My grandma especially likes to drive around out in the country reminiscing about times gone by, who lived on which farm, who she went to school with, and the fun (and not so fun) times she had. My dad seems to like the thrill of the chase, like finding items on a scavenger hunt. If you have reluctant relatives, you might offer to buy them lunch if they come along.
Combine your research trips with visiting with relatives. Take notes (well, not if you are the one driving) or record conversations on your phone or with a digital recorder. Or have an able person in the car take notes while you’re driving. At any rate, conversation will tend to revolve around what you are looking for. Memories will be triggered when you are looking for Great-Aunt Martha’s grave. You’ll want to be sure to get those memories down on paper.
Involving your family members in your research jaunts can be very rewarding and fun. It might give you the opportunity to connect with some relatives you don’t get to see very often. Whatever you do have fun and enjoy the journey!