Editor’s Note: This is the second of three parts in a series about conducting genealogical interviews.
Interviewing family members is an important first step in the journey of discovering your ancestors. But sometimes it’s difficult to get conversations going — especially if you treat them as formal “interviews.”
Put yourself in Grandma’s place. If you seat her at a table, plop a recorder in front of her and start asking straightforward questions, she’s not likely to “remember” anything.
What is it that Grandma likes to do? If gardening is her favorite pastime, ask if you can join her. As you work, you can ask things such as how she got interested gardening. She might tell you it was something she enjoyed as a child with her own grandmother. That would be the ideal place to ask simple, casual questions about that distant relative who would be your second great-grandmother.
If Grandma is housebound but loves ice cream, take her for a little excursion to buy a cone — and perhaps talk about making home-churned ice cream when she was a little girl.
The possibilities are endless. Use your imagination and combine that with patience and a sincere desire to simply enjoy the company of the person you’re interviewing.
Props can be valuable for opening up conversations with relatives who declare they don’t know a thing. What appear to be spontaneous conversations usually are the best.
When you visit, bring along any photographs you’ve been able to collect. Ask Grandma about the day certain photographs were taken — if she hasn’t warmed up yet, pose such things as, “This person doesn’t look very happy to be in the picture — was he an old sourpuss?” or “What a lovely dress you were wearing — was it store-bought?”
If you don’t have photographs to share, ask whether she has any she could share with you. I once paid a visit to the last living child of one set of my paternal great-grandparents. Hoping she might have just a photograph or two, I asked, and she directed me to a large trunk in her bedroom. But it wasn’t just a trunk: it was a treasure chest. She told me to help myself, and we happily dug through pictures, letters her brother had written her from Europe in World War II and old deeds to property her father had owned.
A portable scanner is invaluable for just such occasions. (I recommend a FlipPal — check it out at http://flip-pal .com). I went home that day with scans of many treasures from that trunk.
Even if the relatives to whom you’re talking are happy to share with you, don’t assume they’ll know what’s important to you. Working in old church minutes, I found an entry that my third great-grandmother had “hanged herself.” I’ll never forget the shock of finding that scribbled in the margins of the membership list.
I was very excited to share this critical information with one of my aunts. “Oh, yeah, I knew that,” she casually responded. “Well why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, only to be soundly silenced with “You didn’t ask.”
Interviewing relatives can be like walking a tightrope. It isn’t an exact science; it truly is an art. And it is one we hone with experience.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.