Genealogy Tip: What to Ask Mom on Mother’s Day

Introduction: In this article, to help celebrate Mother’s Day, Gena Philibert-Ortega provides a list of family history questions to ask Mom on her special day. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Mother’s Day 2019 is this Sunday. How will you be spending the day? Those of us who have moms or grandmas or are moms ourselves might share a meal with family and take some time to visit. And while mom rightly deserves a day of rest and admiration, it’s also an excellent excuse to talk family history.

Photo: a postcard issued by the Northern Pacific Railway for Mother's Day, 1915
Photo: a postcard issued by the Northern Pacific Railway for Mother’s Day, 1915. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On this Mother’s Day, what questions could you ask your female progenitors about their lives? If you are a mom, what could you share? I asked my Facebook friends this question and received some great ideas about what information you should be asking or providing this Mother’s Day.

Feelings Not Just Facts

One of the suggestions I especially liked to my question about what to ask mom was made by professional genealogist Catherine Becker Wiest Desmarais, CG. She wrote, “I’d suggest asking about feelings. One can always research names and dates and events, but except for rare occasions where an ancestor left a diary, we can’t do any research to find out how they felt when their husband proposed, when their first child was born, when their mother died (how did they cope?), when various historical events happened, etc.”

Catherine makes an excellent point. Asking family members about the feelings they experienced around specific events helps us get to know them on a more personal level. It’s a benefit of interviewing that you just can’t get when you are only researching facts.

What Did They Eat?

It’s probably no surprise that I especially liked the answers my friends gave about asking what foods mom ate as a child. Your questions could cover anything from foods prepared for holidays to the everyday. For those with family members who lived during World War II, you can ask what foods they ate and how rationing affected their families.

I have some Facebook friends whose family members worked in some aspect of the food industry. Those friends talked about wanting to learn more about their work and their day-to-day tasks. How I wish my paternal great-grandmother were still alive to ask her about working as a chef in restaurant kitchens.

Obviously, this is also a great time to ask mom and grandma for recipes that she makes that you especially love. Even if she doesn’t know the exact measurement, write what she does know down now.

Go through the Family Photo Album

Lorine McGinnis Schulze, professional genealogist and the woman behind the website Olive Tree Genealogy, shared this wish for Mother’s Day: “I’m a mom and a grandmother (of 10). I would love if my kids and my grandkids asked to look at the family photos and wanted to know who everyone was. I am the last person who knows who they all are. I’m scanning and publishing as fast as I can but I may not get them all finished before my expiry date!”

Moms and grandmas, I’m speaking to you now. Mother’s Day is a great day, while you have everyone’s undivided attention, to break out the photo albums. Use the day to identify ancestors in photos, and tell stories about the event the photo was taken at or where it was taken. Let your family know what you know about those familiar to you but not known to the younger generation. If you don’t say something, those deceased ancestors won’t be remembered. One way to get your family interested in family history is to share photos. Take some time to do that. Let them know they can’t have dessert until they hear the family stories!

Need Some Questions for Mom?*

Still not sure what to ask mom and grandma on Mother’s Day? Are you a mom and not sure what information you have to share with family? Here are a few questions my Facebook friends came up with:

  • Tell me about your childhood (toys, friends, sibling relationships, chores).
  • Who was the oldest relative you knew? Describe that person. What were they like?
  • Did you know your grandparents? Tell me about them.
  • Describe living through a historical event or disaster (e.g., the Great Depression, WWII, a big earthquake, assassination of President Kennedy).
  • What was it like to come to America (if she is an immigrant)?
  • What was life like in the country you grew up in (if she is an immigrant)?
  • What is/was your favorite book?
  • Who was your first celebrity crush?
  • What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?
  • What did you learn later in life that you wished you’d realized/learned much earlier?
  • If you had your life to live over again, what would you do differently?

What about You?

For those of you that are moms or grandmas, what do you wish your family would ask you about your life? Mother’s Day is the perfect day to tell your stories, share photos, and show family heirlooms. Don’t let the day end without sharing with your descendants a piece of your own family history.

Happy Mother’s Day!


* I want to thank my Facebook friends who were the inspiration for this article. Specifically, Terri O’Connell, Lisa Alzo, Kathy Hinckley, Annette Diane Kapple Connie Rodriguez, Cheryl Cady, Lacey Frazier, Aine Ni Donnnghaile, WG Visser, Catherine Becker Wiest Desmarais, Miriam Robbins, Joy Kestenbaum, Michelle Chappell-Norris, Peggy Clemens Lauritzen, Lorine McGinnis Schulze, Carol Kostakos Petranek, Donna Fuller, Lacey Frazier, Kimberly Jo Olson, Diane Lieser Jones, Sandra Bourassa, Jane Neff Rollins, Nancy Loe, Tami Osmer Mize, and Gary W. Clark.

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2 thoughts on “Genealogy Tip: What to Ask Mom on Mother’s Day

    1. Thank you so much Elizabeth. Please consider using some of these ideas to document your own story. It’s important that we tell our own story and not just the story of our ancestors’ lives. –Gena

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