Family History: Interview your Grandparents, One at a Time
Help your Grandparents tell their Life Stories
Family history and the love of family is like holding a treasure. You want to preserve this treasure. I’m not talking about treasure which “moth and dust can corrupt.” One aspect of the treasure I’m referring to is the treasure of family stories told by a grandmother or grandfather -- so that the grandmother or grandfather’s very essence comes through for posterity to hear and love all the more. Interview your mother, your father, your grandmother and your grandfather, your great aunts and great uncles -- and do not procrastinate. Help each of your loved ones share their personal history with you through an interview and transcription process.
There are professional interviewers who can help you, but really, you can do it easily yourself. It just takes a little planning and good old tenacity. Once you get going on the preparations, you will begin to feel the special excitement that comes with honoring your parents and family members. You will begin to feel the importance of recording - on audiotape, CD, video or even just with the transcribed word - some of the trials, sad events, happy moments and over-the-top joyous times experienced by your parents and grandparents. Additional information and conversations with great aunts and uncles are often important and full of clues for future genealogy research, but it is most important to start with your parents and grandparents' memoirs.
There are many books on the subject of preserving your family's stories and what kinds of questions to ask in the interview process. These books are available at your library or closest bookstore. Do keep in mind, though, the books are merely guides. Follow your own ideas for questions as you prepare for the pre-interview.
Let us Assume
Let's assume you are going to interview your grandmother first - and your grandfather at a later date. And let's assume you and your grandmother have talked about the importance of this exercise and the procedures involved. You could then set up a date and time to meet with your grandmother to have a pre-interview. This would be an informal get-together. At that meeting, ask her some questions that you plan on asking at the actual recorded interview and listen intently to her answers. Jot down a few notes and make notations of other ideas that come to you as she is talking, so that the shape and direction of the interview comes into being. You might not have time to ask your grandmother everything that day - at the pre-interview - but you will be able to gauge how much time it takes to cover some of the more important questions you want to ask her. You need to be mindful of the posterity already born and try to imagine a descendant of your grandmother reading the transcript and listening to the audio of this interview 20 or 30 years from now. Imagine the descendant needing guidance and a feeling of belonging and then finding it in this interview. These interviews can provide strength, hope, humor and insight for your posterity.
After you have asked your grandmother some of the more important questions at the pre-interview, discuss your proposed shape and breadth of the interview. You need her agreement. It is, after all, her interview. She will own the copyright. You might only have time to go over some of the questions in point form, not asking for her answers that day, but allowing your grandmother to keep them in mind for the next day. By doing this, you might also find there are questions that you think are fine to ask, but touch on sensitive subjects that your grandmother would rather not talk about. You do not want those kinds of questions coming up when you are interviewing your grandmother and the recorder is on.
On the actual day of the interview whether you and your grandmother have decided on an audio interview or a full video interview, have all the equipment set up and tested before your grandmother sits down in the armchair beside you. This kind of scene lends itself to an interview. Background music can be added later including your grandmother's choice of favorite tunes during her many years of life. But you can be creative and hold the interview anywhere, indoors or out.
You are striving to tap the real lady, the person, the spirit, your grandmother's very essence during this interview. This should be your goal. And by accomplishing this goal, you will be able to feel confident that your grandmother's posterity will feel that connection when they listen to the words she says in the interview or when they read those same words. They will take much of what she says to heart. They will feel a special love for this woman and therefore her example and values will touch their hearts in an inexplicable way. (Actually, it is described in the Bible -- in Malachi.)
Tips On the Simple How To's
It's usually a good idea to begin the interview by introducing yourself and your grandmother, stating the date and the place you are at. Then talk about your grandmother's parents - just a sentence or two - and ask a question about them. Then do the same for your grandmother's two sets of grandparents. You will have mentioned this part of the interview to your grandmother the preceding day, so she will have had some ideas she wanted to share. Previously, when shaping the interview, you need to have decided how long you want to spend on this facet of the interview. Ten minutes, twenty minutes? You don't want to spend too long on it, but if there is some good information being shared, let it go longer. You can always edit and delete parts that don't fit well. Also, this is a good way to start an interview because it helps the person being interviewed to feel less self-conscious. Ask for names and dates and an anecdote of how each couple met and what the grooms ended up doing for a living.
Ask questions that matter to you because those questions will likely matter to your posterity, too. Do avoid questions that get a yes or no answer. Once in a while, those kinds of questions are necessary, but mostly you want to use probing questions
Next, in the correct order that you have written down, ask your Grandma the main questions you asked her yesterday. Be sure to look at her while she talks so that she can easily relate these answers to you in a natural way. If you are busy looking down at your paper and pen while your grandmother is sharing something dear to her heart with you, she will be uncomfortable and the interview will not turn out well. You will have heard some of these answers and stories the day before, but be alert and attentively helpful. Make sure there are no parts that your grandmother inadvertently skips over.
Did your grandmother ride a horse to school or did she walk for miles? Did your grandmother have dreams other than marriage when she was young? Did she honor her parents by obeying them and speaking to them with respect? There are a thousand questions you can think up, but it's your job to prepare your interview so that it takes a shape all its own and leaves the listener or viewer - years from now or tomorrow - with the honest feeling they know this great and good lady called Grandma.
Prior to this part of the process, you and your grandmother have to have decided how long of an interview you are aiming for. If you want it to be four hours long, you would break it up into interviews of two or even three days, so that your grandmother has energy and enthusiasm when she talks.
State-of-the-Art or Plain
And one more important point: You need to let your grandmother decide which kind of finished product she wants the interview to be in. It could be a video with a transcribed (typewritten) version on 8.5" x 11" paper. Alternatively, your grandmother might want only an audio recording, plus a transcribed version, but she might want the transcription to be placed in an online book which can be published with photographs and colored backgrounds. There are dozens of reputable online publishing sites where you can create a book from your materials.
Memory Press is one such site that I particularly like. Blurb is another. It can be found at blurb.com. If you create a book at Blurb, you are allowed to show several pages of it online to anyone in your family or anyone who wants to see it. Then for a reasonable price, they too can order a copy of the book which you and your grandmother create. Depending on your choices of size and layouts for the book, one book can cost between $20 to $65.
I have outlined the basic steps to a most important project for your family and I have used the example of you doing this with your grandmother. Instead, I could have spent my time explaining to you the important generational outcomes that can and probably will come of this, the feelings of really having accomplished something when you are done, and the bond you will have strengthened with your grandmother. But this part needed to come first. I hope you will decide to discover the other three outcomes yourself.
 The Holy Bible. Matt 6:19
© 2010 Pamela Dapples