National Grandparents Day is celebrated in the U.S. and the U.K. on September 10 this year. The occasion presents a perfect opportunity to honor the elders in our families, but what is the best way to do so? Often, the gifts most appreciated by grandparents are family members’ genuine interest in their life stories and time spent with loved ones.
Knowing that, perhaps you want to consider honoring the lives of the grandparents in your family by asking them to share their stories, memories, and wisdom in their own words. Preserving these parts of their lives can not only be a fruitful experience for them, but future generations will also benefit from knowing more about their ancestors.
The AncestryProGenealogists office in Salt Lake City has noticed a rising interest in capturing the oral history of family members in their golden years—so much so that the storytelling team recently added the option of having a professional writer travel to clients to conduct oral history interviews. The endeavor has been wildly popular so far, with most families who complete the process remarking that it was the gift of a lifetime for all in the family.
Here are some reasons to consider recording your family members or hiring an AncestryProGenealogists interviewer to help in the process:
We all have our own way of speaking and sharing memories. No two people will ever tell a story exactly the same way. Being interviewed allows family members to shape the memories exactly the way they want to, highlighting certain decisions or weaving in a bit of wisdom learned. Many interviewees have relished the opportunity to tell their descendants how things REALLY were!
Chuck and Karen Woodman, both 84 years old, were recently interviewed by AncestryProGenealogists. They plan to present the recording and transcript they received as a gift to each member of their large family. “I couldn’t think of a better thing to leave our posterity with,” Chuck said. “Hearing it in our own voices at the stage of life we’re at and being able to share some things…I think this is fantastic because to be able to listen to the real voices and say the things we have tried to express from our hearts—hopefully it will have some meaning. And I know it will with our kids, because they lived through these things with us. They can hear our thoughts and our ideas about the life we lived.”
You might think a conversation with a loved one would be more comfortable, but there are some reasons why being interviewed by a non-family member is advantageous when recording memories for future generations. In general, we tend to provide much less detail when describing a story to someone who lived that experience with us, because we know they are already familiar with it. We skim over the details that might have to be explained in greater depth to a stranger.
Interviewers will often ask that respondents use identifiers like “Grandma Alice” instead of just “Grandma” so listeners generations from now will know who they mean. An interviewer, like a good radio host, will also jump in to add clarifying details for the benefit of the listener. These tactics provide a much richer final recording and transcript that can be understood easily for many generations to come.
Finally, it is often much easier for a stranger to ask hard questions or inquire about information that may be more sensitive.
How often has one person’s telling of a story prompted many other listeners to jump in with other comments? Right—all the time! When a family starts the process of collecting shared memories, others inevitably jump in, which ultimately makes for a collection of stories that fit together and create a fuller picture of the family history.
Sometimes people will sit in on other family members’ interviews and find that their own memories are stimulated. (“Oh, I haven’t thought about that in YEARS!”) That makes it easier to expand upon the stories with other perspectives or information.
Those of us who spend countless hours researching family members who died long ago know that genealogical information is becoming more readily available as records are discovered and digitized. We don’t face a deadline for collecting those details, because record collections are constantly being updated with new offerings. However, the reality is that we do face a time constraint when it comes to capturing the voices of those we love: we are not able to keep them around forever. The chance to hear relatives tell their own stories with their own emphasis, inflection, laughter, or tears is lost forever when those relatives pass on. More and more families are recording those stories while they can.
Chuck is now encouraging others to do an interview before they miss their chance. “Regardless of your connection to your family, there will always be some that say, ‘Gee, I wish I could have had that opportunity to listen to them, to see what their feelings were or what their experience in life was,’” he said. “And some people may just kiss it off—‘Oh, who cares?’ But I think…there comes a point in your life when you say, ‘Boy, I wish I had.’ What I’m able to leave today to my posterity…I wish I’d had some of that from my progenitors.”
Interviewees also have expressed gratitude for the chance to bring their ancestors’ stories to light. Chuck Woodman felt a keen connection to his grandparents during his interview, partly because he was looking at his own family tree on paper throughout the conversation. “As soon as you started talking and when you laid out that [genealogy chart] for me, I felt like I had company,” he told his interviewer. “And I wasn’t alone, because I had those people that now I’m responsible to say something, to tell their story. I felt at ease.”
Long after the microphone was turned off, Chuck found another benefit from having been interviewed. He says he reflected on his own life for many days following the recording session, thinking about the path his family has taken together. He thought about his choices and patterns and reactions for many days after the interview. “You’ve caused me to think about some things…to really think it through, some of the things I’ve done in the past,” he told his interviewer. “And I think it’s great. You have a very unique way of getting us to spill the beans.”
As more clients start to collect the spoken history of their families, they are realizing that a collection of memories shared by their family members themselves is a gift of priceless value. “You can give your kids gifts of all kinds, but this is a real treasure to give them,” Chuck said.
Good luck recording your interviews! And if you want professional assistance, call AncestryProGenealogists at (800) 596-3230.