The next two months will give you lots of opportunities to gather many generations of your family together: Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, Hannukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.
Plan NOW to ask your oldest relatives for some oral history. You can’t do it all in one day, but you can get some information.
Get yourself an MP3 player that records, or a hand-held cassette recorder, or a microphone, laptop and recording program, whatever you can lay your hands on and start planning now what you need to ask.
1. Of course the vital statistics. Birth, marriage. Parents’ birth and marriage. Siblings’ birth and marriage Dates, places, anything notable (Born on father’s birthday? Born December 7, 1941? Married overseas?)
2. Ask a starter question and see where it goes such as: What was school like? When did you know your spouse was “the one”? Who was your favorite sports figure/movie star/national hero growing up? Ask just one, and let the answer help you with the followup.
3. Where were you when…..and name an historic event in that person’s life: The end of WWI. D-Day. Kennedy Assisnation. Nixon’s resignation. Or if remembered, what did their fathers, grandfathers, etc say about historical events such as the 1929 Stock Market Crash or Teddy Roosevelt’s election.
4. The traditional Thanksgiving Day question: When did our family come to America?
Remember to limit the conversation to about an hour at a time, especially for the very elderly. Give time and space for the answers to emerge, and don’t press too hard. And be aware that some of these memories will be sad; my mother choked up whenever she remembered her brother Vernon, killed in the Battle of the Bulge when she was a teenager.
Record and backup (and transcribe!) the results as soon as you can after the interview, while your memory is fresh, and in case some of the recording is hard to hear. You could burn the sound file and a pdf of the transcription along with any pictures you take or have of the interviewee onto a CDROM for future reference.
And while you’re at it, answer some of those questions yourself, and record those answers!