How much do you know about the women in your family tree? One of my biggest regrets as a genealogist is not taking the time to talk to my maternal grandmother about her life and immigration story. Grandma died before I was interested in genealogy, but if I could go back in time, I would ask her so many questions about her life while growing up in Slovakia and to tell me about her experiences after she arrived in America.
Since today is International Women’s Day, and March is designated as National Women’s History Month, there is no better time to talk to your female relatives and ask them questions about their mothers and grandmothers while you still can. You don’t have to be an expert interviewer to get the information you desire. You can easily find out key details by asking five key questions.
1. Who – Who were your parents? Who were your grandparents? Encourage the sharing of details about the family unit. Confirm the spelling of first and last names and inquire about any possible name changes. Can they provide photographs or physical descriptions of family members? Who else is important in their lives (husbands, spouses, relatives, friends, etc.)?
2. What – What significant historical events did you live through? What was your occupation or role in the family? What were some of your favorite things as a child or young adult (games, books, movies, activities or sports)? What foods did you cook? What were some holiday or other traditions your family observed?
3. When – When were you born? When did you meet your spouse or significant other? When did you marry? When did your parents, grandparents, or siblings pass away? Ask for specific dates. When did you live in or leave a specific place? (For example, I know the date my grandmother arrived at Ellis Island and when her ship left the port of Hamburg, but I would ask her for details about when she first left her village to begin her journey to America).
4. Where – As in real estate, location is key for genealogy. Ask about places. Where did grandma and grandpa live? Where is aunt Millie buried? Where did you marry (name of church or city hall)? If the place name sounds foreign or unfamiliar, ask your interviewee to spell it out as best they can. If they can’t remember an exact town or village, then ask what was the closest big town or city? Did you live close to mountains, down in the valley, near a river, or a forest?
5. Why – As genealogists we like facts, (who, what, when, where), but we often forget to ask “Why?” Why did you make certain decisions? Did you have a choice? Why or why not? What inspired or motivated you during your early years or later as an adult?
Tip: Always remember to be respectful, especially of those with infirmities, and be sensitive to the person’s feelings if you experience any degree of reticence.
Ideally, you should be recording your interviews. You can use your smartphone and any number of apps– One of my favorites is StoryCorps because once you have completed the interview, you can share your interview on the StoryCorps website and have it archived in the Library of Congress). Go to the FAQ page on the the StoryCorps site to learn more.
Guidelines for Conducting Oral History Interviews
The National Women’s History Website has some guidelines for conducting oral histories. For example:
- What was the purpose of this oral history?
- What do you think was happening when it was recorded?
- What can you tell about the person telling the story and their point of view?
- What is the significance of this oral history?
- Is it more personal or historical?
- How does encountering this story firsthand change its emotional impact?
- What can you learn from this oral history?
Take Action Now!
Write down the names of at least three females in your family and then call, Skype, Facetime, or visit them and do those interviews! If you are a woman, don’t forget to document your own story for future generations!
Copyright 2017, Lisa A. Alzo
All Rights Reserved