January is the most popular month for family history research reported Shelly Talalay Dardashti on the My Heritage Genealogy Blog.
I’ll bet that one of the big reasons is the holiday family gatherings that so many people attend. They sit around the living room or the dinner table and sooner or later begin to tell family stories. They recall the one about Grandma Bertha’s adventures in the 1893 land rush to homestead the former Indian Territory. Someone else remembers the story of how Grandma Cecil and Grandpa Merritt moved to San Francisco after they came west from South Dakota to start a hog ranch in Roseville up near Sacramento only to get wiped out by hog cholera. Someone from another branch of the family tells the one about always eating venison because Uncle Tommy got hired by the State of New Jersey as a hunter to kill deer to thin the herds.
Those conversations stimulate everyone’s desire to make sure their family stories are preserved. So January is a big month for research.
The problem is that when your new enthusiasm for recording the family history leads you to call or visit Great Aunt Tillie the convivial stimulus of a holiday glass of hot mulled wine or a slice of pumpkin pie has also become a memory. You ask Tillie to tell you what she remembers and she’s like Ronald Reagan after the Iran-Contra scandal. All she says is, “I just don’t recall.”
It’s frustrating. It’s an experience that every family history researcher has had.
So what can you do to help Aunt Tillie remember?
The key to a successful interview is preparation. Begin by creating a Memory List. Brainstorm your own family memories and list anything you can remember about people, places, actions, or ancestors. Anything you recall is important to include, even if it is only a fragment of a memory. Once you have your list go back through the items and add a memory prompt or cue for each item on the list. The prompt should be short – three to six words. Here are some examples:
- Aunt Ceil – had five husbands
- Grandpa – lost print shop in Great Depression
- Great Uncle Louie – a boxer as a young man
- Grandma – a beautiful rose garden
- Cousin Eddie – died in Flu Epidemic in 1918
Each prompt is designed to trigger some memory or recollection about the ancestor.
When you get together with Aunt Tillie, whether in person or by telephone, use the memory triggers on your list to help her get started talking. Not every prompt will necessarily lead to a story, but many will. Once she starts talking, interrupt as little as you can. She may take off in a completely different direction than you expected and you’ll hear stories you didn’t anticipate and knew nothing about. Let her talk. When the conversation runs down you can ask for clarification or additional details.
A second thing to remember is to keep the conversations relatively short. Older people get tired. You’ll learn more while Aunt Tillie is energetic. Two short conversations will often net more good family stories than one long one. You may also find that when you return for the second conversation she has recalled stories triggered by reflections on your earlier interview.