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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Talk to Your Family Elders Before It's Too Late!

Have you ever wished that you knew more about your grandparents or your great-grandparents? If they are still alive, now is the time to sit down and have a chat. Here's a few quick tips on how to conduct an "elder" interview.

Treat it less like a formal interview and more like a conversation. Elderly parents', grandparents', aunts' and uncles' memories are not as sharp as they used to be in many cases and pushing them to remember heightens their distress. Never say, "remember when ...". If they can't remember, it scares them because they know they should remember and can't. It's better to start with information that's a visual or creates a sense of smell or sound. Start with something you know about connected family like "Aunt Ruby played a mean ragtime piano." And you might get something like, "She gets that from Grandpa Pat. He played in a jazz band down in New Orleans." One memory will trigger another, then another. Before you know it, you'll discover that Grandpa Pat came from County Kerry where he learned to play fiddle from his father Joseph. That might trigger stories about The Great Famine and why Grandpa Pat came to the US.

Have patience. Your elders may ramble a bit before they get to the point. Treasure the process because the journey reveals not only history but character, description, new avenues of ancestral research, and a little bit about the storyteller. You may learn that Great-grandpa David had the clearest, bluest eyes ever or that he fought in The Great War. You may discover that his unit saved another unit, but he was personally mustered out due to wounds received.

Each piece of genealogical information you discover may take a few minutes or a few hours or several interviews but it's always worth the time and effort. Capture it on tape, or better yet, video. Today's video cameras are easy to use; many of them (i.e. Flip cameras) are one-touch. Press a button and it will record from one to two hours. Just set it up on a tripod and let it roll. On playback, you'll discover family history in the making that is both personal and a family heirloom for future generations.