Genealogy: A Family Affair! (Part II)

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards describes how to conduct family interviews for your genealogy – and includes a list of 90 questions to ask. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England.

Genealogy can be a family activity as well as a pursuit done by just one person. In my previous article, I described two activities that can be done as a family (see: Genealogy: A Family Affair!). Today I present a third family history project.

Illustration: conducting an interview

Activity 3: A Family of Oral Historians

As a family, choose several relatives (I would choose three names at the most to start) that you would like to interview to help your family with its family history research. When choosing the people to interview, think about which one of them might have the most family stories to tell, and may have some artifacts that they could show you and talk about. Usually, most people start with the oldest relatives, because they have lived through more family events than anyone else. Write a letter or call each of the people and set up a place and time for each interview. Explain what you want to do and why you want to do it. You will need to plan well and let each family member participate in preparing and asking the questions.

Follow these guidelines:

1) Think about the questions you want to ask and write them down (at the end of this article is a list of 90 questions you can use during your interviews).

2) Choose some way to record the interview (video camera and Smart Phone are just a few that could do the job). Make sure that you have fresh batteries, or that you can plug the recorder into an outlet. If you use a video recorder, take another person with you to run the camera so that you can concentrate on asking the questions.

3) During the interview, start with easy questions (like getting some background information first). Then divide their lives into sections (like memories dealing with childhood, teen years, early adult life, middle adult life, and later adult life – 60s to their present age). Don’t feel uncomfortable if your relative stops speaking and there is silence; sometimes the person is just thinking about what to say next. Wait patiently, and you’ll find that they begin speaking soon. Don’t be too quick with another question. Allow the person time to think and try not to interrupt. When you’ve exhausted all your questions allow them to add any other recollections they would like to add. Remember that thinking back on the past will sometimes bring sad memories, so be sensitive and kind. If the person looks very uncomfortable, ask if he or she would like to continue talking on the topic or go on to another question.

4) Thank your relative for the time and the thoughts that have been shared with you.

5) After gathering family history information at home and from relatives, you’re probably going to need a way to organize your information and to add any new information to your family’s genealogy.

6) Be sure to make several copies of the interview and give one copy to the person whom you interviewed so that they can share it with family members they are close to. Another copy should be placed either in a fireproof box or safety deposit box, as well as at least one trustworthy person who lives elsewhere (this is to ensure that the interviews aren’t lost if a natural disaster – like a fire or flood – were to happen.

Final Thought

More than 30 years ago, I did this activity and taped (on audio cassette) a great grandaunt, and she showed me photographs of people I hadn’t heard of yet as I was new to my family tree. I still have the tape and can listen to it anytime, even though my great grandaunt died more than 20 years ago. Before I was married my parents visited me and my fiancé in Arizona, and I borrowed a video camera and “interviewed” my parents about their courtship and the early days of their marriage. I also had my relatives share one story about a member of the family (anyone of their choice) at my second wedding reception (so I not only have the stories, but I have also got footage on relatives who’ve since passed on). Each of these things has given me priceless memories of the people being interviewed as well as the people they spoke about.

Start your family interviews soon, and begin collecting your own priceless memories!

List of Questions for Your Family Interviews

  1. What is the earliest event in life you can remember?
  2. How did your parents choose your name?
  3. Where did you grow up? If you grew up in more than one place, do you remember how you felt about having to move? Describe your surroundings when you were a child. Can you picture the kitchen, bedrooms, etc.?
  4. How did you travel or go to places in those days?
  5. What are the names of your brothers and sisters, in order? Do you remember how you felt and what you did when your younger brothers and sisters were born (if applicable). If you were the youngest, do you know what they thought about you when you were born?
  6. What experiences do you remember having with your brothers and sisters?
  7. Did you have any other relatives that you were close to? Did you have a favorite aunt or uncle? Did you meet or know your grandparents? Other relatives?
  8. What kind of things did you do for fun?
  9. Did your family or friends have any nicknames for you any time in your life? Who gave you that and/or called you that? Why did they call you that? Were there any nicknames for any of your brothers or sisters? If so, what were they and why were they called that?
  10. What chores did your parents have you do? What was your favorite(s) and what was your least favorite(s)? How did you feel in general about doing the chores? Did you receive an allowance? If you did was it based on what chores you did or was it a “set amount”?
  11. Did you have any pets growing up? What were their names and what kind of animal were they?
  12. Who were your best friends growing up?
  13. Did you have a special way of celebrating birthdays? What special family traditions did you have?
  14. Were there any other special holidays that your family celebrated? What traditions were used during these holidays?
  15. What religious rites did you go through?
  16. How did you feel about school? What did you do well at in school? What did you do poorly in? Which teachers did you like the best? Do you remember the names of your schools and where they were located? Do you know if that school is still there?
  17. Did you ever have any unusual or exciting adventures when you were a child?
  18. Did you like to read as a child? What kind of books did you read (include the title or titles if you remember)? What were your favorite radio or television programs? How often did you listen to or watch radio or television programs? What singers/groups did you like to listen to?
  19. Do you remember any major historical events from this time period? How did it affect your life (if at all)?
  20. What were some of the things you wanted to do “when you grew up”?
  21. Did you get into trouble? What was the worst thing you did?
  22. What was your favorite activity/activities as a teenager?
  23. What was teenage music like then? What was your favorite kind? Do you remember some of the songs you particularly liked?
  24. Did you go to school dances? If so, what were they like? How did the teenagers dance then (what were some of the types/name of dances)?
  25. Who was your first girl/boy friend? How old were you?
  26. How often did you date? What kinds of things did you do out on a date?
  27. What home responsibilities did you have?
  28. Did you ever have a job as a teenager? What was it? What kinds of tasks did you do? Do you remember what you were paid?
  29. When did you get your driver’s license? What was your first car?
  30. Did anything difficult happen while you were a teenager?
  31. Do you remember any major historical events from this time period? How did it affect your life (if at all)?
  32. Who were your friends then? What did you do with them?
  33. What made you decide on your college, or career, or plans for your future? What goals did you have at the time?
  34. Did you get into trouble? What was the worst thing you did?
  35. How were young men and women expected to behave when you were a teenager?
  36. What do you think your mother or father would say about today’s teenagers?
  37. Describe your first job after you finished school. What did you do with your first paycheck? What was your favorite job and why?
  38. Tell us about how you got into your line of work.
  39. Did you like your job?
  40. If you could do anything now, what would you do? Why?
  41. Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?
  42. How and when did you meet your spouse? What was your first impression of them? What happened then? How did you feel? How long did you date before you became engaged? Married?
  43. When were you married? How old were you when you married? Where were you married? What do you remember about your wedding day? Did you go on a honeymoon right afterward or was it delayed? How long of a honeymoon was it? Where did you go?
  44. What was it like to be a newlywed in those days? Where did you first live after marriage? What kind of place was it (apartment, house, room)? How big was it (studio, one bedroom, etc.)?
  45. What humorous or memorable adventures did you have?
  46. How did you learn you were going to be a parent for the first time? How did your spouse?
  47. What was it like to become a parent? How did you feel?
  48. If you’ve become a grandparent, when did you see your first grandchild? How did you feel?
  49. During your adult years, where have you lived? Why did you move there?
  50. As an adult or parent, what did you like to do for entertainment? What were some of your favorite traditions?
  51. What talents did you discover in yourself as you grew up? Tell us about the things you learned to do.
  52. Have you had any personal or family tragedies in your life? If you would like, tell us about them.
  53. How did you feel when your mother, father, brother, sister, spouse, or child died? How did you get used to life without that person? What helped you the most?
  54. What was the greatest joy or accomplishment you have had in life?
  55. As you look back on your life, what is one thing you had to work really hard at, then finally succeeded?
  56. What is your favorite memory of each of your siblings?
  57. If you could do everything again, would you raise your children differently?
  58. What advice would you give one of your children about raising his/her kids?
  59. What is your favorite memory of mom/dad?
  60. How would you describe yourself as a child? Were you happy?
  61. What were the best times? The most difficult times?
  62. Did you ever think of getting divorced?
  63. Do you have any favorite stories from your marriage or about your husband/wife?
  64. How has being a parent changed you?
  65. Do you remember when your last child left home for good?
  66. What books do you read now? What are your favorite radio or television programs? How often do you listen to or watch radio or television programs? What singers/groups did you like to listen to?
  67. Are there any spiritual/religious experiences you would like to tell us about?
  68. If you could hold on to one memory from your life for eternity, what would that be?
  69. Do you believe in the afterlife? What do you think it will be like?
  70. Do you think about dying? Are you scared?
  71. How do you imagine your death?
  72. Do you believe in an afterlife?
  73. Do you regret anything?
  74. What have you learned from life?
  75. How do you want to be remembered?
  76. What are you proudest of in your life?
  77. When in life have you felt most alone?
  78. How has your life been different from what you’d imagined?
  79. Who is the oldest relative you remember (and what do you remember about him or her)?
  80. How did your parents meet?
  81. Who are some of your heroes? Who was the most important person in your life? Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did they teach you?
  82. Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy was shot? (Add or substitute other important historical events.)
  83. What is your experience with or opinion of computers? (Add or substitute other modern conveniences, such as televisions, microwaves and cell phones.)
  84. Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
  85. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
  86. What were some of your grandmother’s best qualities? Her worst qualities?
  87. What kind of personality did your grandfather have? Did he influence you in any way? How? Are you like him in any way?
  88. Were there any family heirlooms/property, etc., that have been handed down from generation to generation? What are they? Where are they now?
  89. Are there any stories about famous or infamous relatives on either side of the family?
  90. Can you tell me a story about your mother – something she did or the way she was – that you remember most?

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