When you start interviewing your relatives, be prepared to be amazed. You never know what you are going to hear.
My grandmother grew up during the 1920s and 1930s on a dairy farm set it in the rolling hills and fertile fields of southeastern Wisconsin. When I first began asking her about her childhood, I expected reminiscences of a simple life in a bucolic setting replete with long walks to school in the snow and helping her mother prepare dinner. What I had not expected was a story about how my great grandmother stared down two mobsters.
As I found out later, during Prohibition mobsters from Milwaukee and Chicago often hid stills in the countryside of Wisconsin, threatening and intimidating the local farmers into silence. One night, just as my grandmother, then twelve, and her parents and siblings were finishing dinner, armed men came to the door.
The “mobsters” had hidden a still on a nearby farm. So that no one would see their compatriots going about their illegal activities, they made the family sit in complete silence in the parlor with the drapes drawn. All the while they kept a rifle pointed at my great grandfather. Finally after nervously sitting quiet for hours, my great grandmother calmly stated that it was time for the children to go to bed. Apparently, the hardened gin-runners were so taken aback that they allowed her to shepherd the children to their rooms.
There is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting, preferably in a quiet place, free from interruptions or distractions. Even better, a drive through childhood neighborhoods or past the church they attended, if you can arrange it, can bring back memories long forgotten.
Call ahead before your visit and ask if they have any old family bibles or photo albums you could look at together. Family bibles and other family papers can be a treasure trove of information. Paging through old photos is also an excellent way to help jog someone’s memory.
Start by asking specific questions like, “Where were you born?”, “What were you parents names?” and “What about your grandparents?” Then move on to more general ones, like “What was it like to grow up during the Great Depression?” or “During World War II?”
Finally, remember to record the conversation, if they give permission. At the very least, don’t forget paper and pen.
Good luck! Post or email me at email@example.com and let me know how it goes.
Next week: Making the most of family gatherings this summer.