Saturday, March 24, 2012

Talk To Your Elderly Relatives

     Because genealogy can be a time-consuming passion, I didn't get involved in it until I retired, and I am so sorry I waited that long. Discovering the identities of my ancestors made me hungry to know more about their lives. The records of genealogy: certificates of birth, death, marriage, etc., can provide the skeleton of family history, but it's the stories that flesh it out.
     What really whetted my appetite for more knowledge was my memory of the few stories my grandfather told me. Although he may not have remembered what happened yesterday – in his last years all days were alike – he told me in great detail about the summer he “hired out” at the age of 18: the name of the farmer who hired him, what he did from sunrise to sunset, how much he was paid (a dollar a day), and just about every other detail of those three months.
     Grandpa was long dead when I realized that there was so much more he could have told me about his early years. I spent many hours of research until I found out that his uncle owned a distillery that had been in business since before the Revolutionary War. If only I had talked to him.
     On another occasion I recorded a session with my Aunt Jackie, and I now have an oral record of aunts, cousins and other relatives that I never knew, although I did meet some of them at a family reunion in 1998. I also found out that my great grandfather Grunenberger was killed when his legs were run over by a huge horse-drawn sleigh loaded with logs, and that my grandmother had to slide down a drain pipe to meet my grandfather – things I never would have discovered by strictly genealogical records. But I had to ask.
     Recently I spoke with a lady who told me that as a prerequisite to getting a college degree, her granddaughter had to interview an older person – someone at least two generations removed from the student. That is a wonderful idea, particularly if the student finds a talkative subject who has led a varied life, as happened in this case. And a sensitive and intelligent interviewer, one who can find the right questions to ask, can learn much, not only about the interviewee, but also about life in general during the last half century or so.
     But think about what one would learn if one questioned one's own ancestor. Who were your grandparents? What was your father's occupation? Is it true your uncle was hanged as a horse thief? Etc., etc.? Perhaps one could even learn the truth of certain family stories, or the origin of some family traits, or even get a hint of certain genes that should be nurtured or guarded against.
     So consider yourself fortunate if you have an elderly family member to interview. The two of you need to sit down with a recorder and talk. Sometimes only one or two questions can stimulate a half hour of memories which will be lost when your relative dies.
     Don't wait until it's too late.
My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

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