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Making the Most of Living Relatives

Ten years ago I went to visit my two grandmothers. This was about 6 months after I caught the family history bug. I had exhausted my PAF program with any name, place, and date that I could find in the verbal and physical information that had been given to me. Since this was in 1999, I hadn’t yet learned how to explore the websites on the internet or had any training on finding the things that I wanted to know. I was just going with the flow.

My relationship with my Grandma D was a good one. We were not close but she was always kind and loving. She is not a member of the Church but has always welcomed me into her home. So one Saturday morning, my mother and I drove three hours to see her. It probably helped that I brought along my new baby, her third great grandson.

I learned several things that day, most of them were things that I had done wrong in approaching “interviewing” living relatives. It is my hope that others won’t make the same mistakes. I took a tape recorder and a book called The Story Only You Can Tell by Toni Sorenson Brown. Things went smoothly for the first little while that I was there. Grandma D adored her new great grandchild and we made small talk about the weather, my husband’s job, and caught up on life. Things seemed to change a bit when I took out the tape recorder, my pencil and paper and my book that had 40 pages of family history questions. There was tension in the air. As I began the interview with Grandma D, it was just that; an interview. She answered questions, clarified stories, shared some details. Every once in awhile, when the conversation lulled, I’d ask a new question to keep the conversation flowing. And then, I realized that my tape recorder batteries were dead, grandma began to be irritable and the mood in the room was thick. We stopped the “interview”, changed the subject and played with the baby for awhile.

I felt somewhat discouraged knowing that I didn’t get nearly the amount of information that I was seeking. And then I began to realize that I had set my expectations too high. Over time, the mood lightened and my mother started a conversation about things that she remembered from her childhood. Mom asked general questions, talked about herself growing up and the conversation became lighter, funny at times and felt different. The whole time we talked, I took notes. When we left Grandma D’s house later that afternoon, I walked away with a few detailed stories and a memory of three generations spending time together.

Was I discouraged? A little. Mostly at myself for making things feel forced and too researched. I was however grateful that my mother could turn the question and answer session into a conversation that was eventually enjoyed by all of us.

As we headed to my other grandma’s home which was an hour away, I commented on the frustrations I had and the lack of cooperation and information I had actually received. I went over in my head the things I would do differently at the uncoming visit with my Grandma S.

Our visit with Grandma S started out with the same small talk and cooing over my little boy. But the environment was different. I left the book and tape recorder in the car. My mother took notes along with me, in the hopes that she could catch some details that I didn’t. The questions seemed more open ended and flowed better. The stories were funny, detailed and what I was looking for. The time spent reminiscing did not have the feeling of an interview and therefore my grandma S did not feel like she was put on the spot. When I left Grandma S’s house, we had an agreement to write. (Over the next few years, I would write to her regarding specific questions that I had about our family history and she would write her answers back to me.)

Times and technology have changed. If I were to do this all over again, I would take my laptop. I would also take my handy pencil and paper in case technology fails. I would go with the intent of visiting and not the intent of researching. I would go with a prayer in my heart and with the knowledge that anything we talked about was a step in the right direction. I would enjoy the visit and the walk down memory lane. I would also leave them each with a small stack of family history questions – only a few to a sheet- to be used to help them remember. I would leave them self addressed and stamped envelopes to make it easy on them to write and then just stick their letters to me in the mail.

I would ask them questions about their lives, traditions, family holidays, meals, physical characteristics. Looking back, I asked a question to my Grandma D that made her uncomfortable. Instead of apologizing and moving on, I unitentionally dug for more information not realizing that this was enough to offset the conversation and make things turn sour.

What I learned from this whole experience is that I needed to rely on the spirit more and let the visit flow. Poking and prodding sometimes feels like intrusion. There are also things in our past that are painful and should not be dwelled upon. Most importantly, that the living relatives are our family. This family time needs to be cherished. This was a great learning experience for me and one that I am grateful to have not experienced since.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Michelle D September 4, 2009, 11:19 am

    Great insights on the lessons you’ve learned, Kim. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  • ldsmusicwriter September 6, 2009, 11:05 pm

    That was a great story, Kim. I need to do this with my grandma who is 89 years old. We don’t get there to see her very often and I am worried that soon it will be too late. I would have approached it with a tape recorder as well, but a laptop is a great idea. My daughter who is interested in family history is also very interested in the Great Depression, which my grandma has insight into. She was a newlywed during that time. Your article has motivated me…thanks!

  • Alison Moore Smith September 7, 2009, 8:52 am

    Hey, Michelle, since the two of you know Kim, do you think you could suggest that she pop in and respond to the comments on her posts? Her last threads had some questions, but when she didn’t respond, they kind of died out. It’s such great content, I really hope that we can keep the conversation going on her topic.

  • Michelle D September 7, 2009, 11:04 am

    Sure. I already mentioned it to her, but I will do so again.

  • Alison Moore Smith September 7, 2009, 1:13 pm

    Thanks much! I did, too, but think she was concerned at the time with other things like the formatting problems. I think coming from a friend would be better. I think she adds so much to the site and don’t want her to think I’m picking on her or unhappy, if you know what I mean.

  • Alison Moore Smith September 13, 2009, 10:36 pm

    Kim, what a great story and suggestions. It is so good to learn from others, both what works and what doesn’t.

    A number of years ago, when my parents were visiting us in Florida, I plopped my folks down in front of our video camera, gave them a set of questions, and left the room. My parents knew and appreciated that this was a kind of family history interview, so it worked fine in that particular circumstance. They talked and talked about all sorts of things.

    The next time they came to visit, a number of months later, I asked them to watch their own videos and write down anything they thought of that they’d like to add or clarify. Then they made a second recording.

    The thing I remember most about my mom on that occasion was that she was appalled at how she hadn’t dressed up for the first recording. 🙂

    It was only a short time after these interviews that my mom started experiencing memory problems. I’m really glad that I got those recordings when her mind was still healthy. :bigsmile:

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