Introduction: In this article – in honor of this Sunday being National Grandparents’ Day – Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips and specific questions to interview your grandparents while they are still around to help with your family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
Any family historian who has been researching for some time will have regrets. These regrets typically include not citing sources, and not asking questions when family members were alive. Boy, do I understand. I think with time, age, and experience, you wish you could go back in time and ask certain questions that didn’t occur to you when you were younger or not involved in family history.
I know that some of my questions could have been easily answered by my paternal grandmother, and although we had a close relationship, she died when I was 21 years old and before I thought to ask those questions.
One of my mother’s brothers died in 2019. Recently, I was looking at my FamilySearch tree and discovered that his granddaughter uploaded an interview she did with him a year before he passed away. She taped the interview but also wrote a transcription, both uploaded to FamilySearch. The interview had some of the standard questions you would expect (where were you born, who were your parents), but also included a few that are helpful to everyone doing family history research.
These questions included:
- Did you ever meet your grandparents?
- What was your mother like?
- What was your dad like?
- What was your favorite meal as a child?
- What was your first job?
- What was your most fun adventure as a child? Who was with you?
- How did you celebrate Thanksgiving?
- How did you celebrate Christmas?
- What holidays/special occasions did your family celebrate? Are there any that you never celebrated?
- What family members came to your wedding?
These questions provide the names and memories of other family members. They also help to add some context to the genealogical facts we gather about our families. To these questions I would add:
- Who is the oldest family member you met?
- What family members did you visit the most?
- What cousins did you know?
- Did you attend any family funerals growing up?
- Did you attend any family reunions? Who was there?
- What’s a family heirloom you own? Tell me more about it.
- Did your parents tell you any stories about your grandparents?
- Tell me more about [fill in the blank historical event] that you experienced/lived through (for example, WWII, the moon launching, Kennedy assassination). Where were you, what was your reaction, what was your family’s reaction?
The main goal in interviewing family members is to record their firsthand knowledge and to preserve their memories for future generations. Everyone has a story, whether they believe they do or not. Those stories are invaluable and enrich our overall family history research.
If my paternal grandmother were alive today, I would ask her about her life during World War II. The story is she worked as a Rosie the Riveter, but I’ve found nothing to prove that. She also never talked about that. When I asked other family members, they weren’t sure. The best person to ask about a life is that person themself.
If you are like me and have no living grandparents, take some time to write what you remember about yours. I was close to my grandparents and have memories that would be of interest to my kids.
Are you a grandparent? Write your own story down. Too often in genealogy we ignore our own stories in our focus to gather information about the more distant past.
Happy National Grandparents’ Day!