I wanna know about the old country.
September 30, 2009 9:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be at a rainy cottage all weekend with 3 senior citizens: my dad, aunt, and uncle. I want my non-talkative dad and his sister to reminisce about their childhoods, but I suspect my aunt's talkative husband will dominate the conversation. If that happens, Dad and Aunt won't talk much. How can I encourage them to reminisce without hurting my uncle's feelings?

Here's a little more info about the personalities:

My dad, age 70- good-natured, physically active, not very talkative, has terrible hearing (like 30%, even with a hearing aid).
My aunt, age 65- dad's younger sister. Has badly arthritic knees. She's fairly chatty, but can get a little tense with her husband.
My dad and his sister have not spent more than 3 hours together in about 30 years (no specific conflict- they just drifted apart). Also, they are both retired and spend a lot of time alone so they have withdrawn slightly- lots of naps and newspaper crosswords, not much socializing.

My uncle (my aunt's husband), age 65- professorial, very social, still works so he's "younger" than my dad and aunt and more plugged into the world. He tends to be dominant with planning and conversation, which irritates my aunt and causes tension between them. He is really sweet, and I like him a lot, but I am really more excited to spend time with my dad and aunt, since they are never ever together and my aunt is hard for me to contact (whereas uncle and I share some interests so we communicate by email already).

Two questions:

1. How to get Dad and Aunt talking about life in the old country?
I already asked Uncle to bring old slides and photos.
I'm gonna grab some photo books & a DVD documentary about the country to spark memories.
Any other ideas?

2. What else would be fun for us to do together?
My dad's bad hearing can make it really hard to do group activities.
My aunt's bad knees make walking a problem for her (so no hikes).
The cottage has electricity, TV, DVD player, etc.

I really want this weekend to be special and help my dad and his sister connect after so long apart!
I'm not gonna be all stressy and neurotic about it or try to force them to reminisce, but I would like to go in with a couple of ideas.
Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by twistofrhyme to Human Relations (11 answers total)
Best answer: Redirecting conversation is incredibly effective, even if it's transparent.

Uncle says, "Blah blah blah."

You say, "Dad, that sounds exactly like blah blah blah from blah blah blah, right?"

My father is prone to delivering both lectures and canned jokes at the dinner table. I have finally learned to just change the subject, even if it's abrupt, the awkwardness is a small price to pay for an enjoyable dialogue.
posted by ezola at 9:49 PM on September 30, 2009

I'm trying to figure out what your angle is here. The title of your post ("I wanna know about the old country") suggests that you're personally curious about past times. If that's the case, just say so and ask them questions. Some people just don't really like to reminisce though, so be respectful of their preferences. Some people may not want to reminisce, perhaps for reasons you aren't aware of, and forcing the issue is just going to cause embarrassment and/or pain for all.

On the other hand, I'm also picking up on this vibe that you want this nostalgia to come about as part of some grand scheme by which you bring your dad and aunt back together. If that's the case, I really advise you to reconsider. You're putting them in the same place at the same time, providing some activities, and at some point, that's as far as you can take it yourself. Trying to "facilitate" the conversation is the path of madness.

So focus on keeping everybody having a good time--provide the cocoa and the board games--but I wouldn't be pushing the conversation particularly far in any particular direction. Have fun.
posted by zachlipton at 9:53 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest photographs but it looks like you have that covered.

How about food? Is there something that your dad and aunt remember from their childhoods (especially holidays) that you all can cook together?

Is there something that your uncle and you have in common that you can engage each other with, and leave the siblings alone?

This is very sweet of you to be thinking of all this, by the way. Just the fact that you've made this much effort so far means that it will be a weekend to remember for everyone.
posted by zinfandel at 9:55 PM on September 30, 2009

Years ago I told my parents I wanted to video tape them. I asked them to just sit in front of the camera ( each one alone and then again together) and talk about things they remember. Schools they went to, friends they hung around with. Stories about growing up and stuff like that. I gave them free reins. Actually it went pretty well. Only in my case I sat with them and had notes jotted down in case they got stuck or just camera shy. I still have the tapes. Could you ask your dad and his sister to sit in a separate room and do something like that? You could try and preoccupy your uncle in another room. Maybe ask him to let them be in there for a while on their own. Or even let him be part of it and give him his own time. The photo idea will work I'm sure. Most elderly people love to reminisce. Especially if they know your truly interested.
posted by Taurid at 11:05 PM on September 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think setting up some kind of formal interview situation would work best. Get them in a room, either separate or together, get a tape recorder running and tell them you want to do an oral history project about the family. Keep uncle out of the room.

Ask open but specific questions, like 'Tell me about your first memories.' 'Can you tell me how your parents met?'. Or stuff like: 'How did a typical day look like for grandma/grandpa?' 'How did grandpa's familiy react when he told them he would be moving out of the country?' 'What was life like when they arrived here?'
posted by NekulturnY at 2:16 AM on October 1, 2009

I have in-laws who like to dominate the conversation with stories about their childhood. It can be annoying b'c I really want to hear stories from my parents and their siblings about their parents and grandparents, not from some 'unrelated' (related by marriage only) family. (Side note: I do love my in-laws, but I'm much more curious about my great-grandparents, not theirs.)

When the in-laws start in on their stories, I nod and say, "Interesting. So, Mom/Dad/Aunt/Uncle, tell me again about Grandpa so'n'so." I also know names of long-time family friends, so I'll ask about them, "Say, we call Ruth S. 'aunt', but she's not really an aunt, is she?"

Pictures (which you have) are also a great way to redirect the conversation.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 3:46 AM on October 1, 2009

Depending on your goal, you could just say, "Hey, Uncle X, I haven't gotten to talk with you much [lately]. How about we go for a walk?" Your Dad and Aunt will be left alone together, so they'll *have* to talk.

Alternatively, you could find an activity like playing chess or another game that you and uncle could play, in the same room but at a considerable distance (far enough that you can't hear the conversation well) from your Dad and aunt.
posted by amtho at 5:09 AM on October 1, 2009

Best answer: If you're mainly interested in getting to listen to Dad's and Aunt's reminiscences, but are worried that Uncle will butt in, then could you level with him beforehand and explicitly enlist his help in the endeavor? Present it to him like a family history project you're doing, and ask him to help you keep the other two talking, or to run the video camera, or to come up with a list of questions, or whatever. Since he's the "youngest" of the three oldsters, isn't related by blood to you, and is fairly socially aware anyway, it shouldn't be hard to manage this so that he feels flattered instead of hurt by your request to keep the conversation focused on Dad and Aunt's stories.
posted by Bardolph at 6:53 AM on October 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: There are two possible things you could want here - your Dad and Aunt to have a chance to talk, or for you to have a chance to listen to your Dad and Aunt talking. Either way, I like Bardolph's idea to bring in the uncle as a co-conspirator. If what you want is to hear the stories yourself, then something like the 'family history' idea usually works pretty well. Or even just 'hey, Dad and Aunt, could you tell me who's in these photo albums?' you should be able to do subtle re-directs and keep the conversation on them, especially with props.

Speaking as someone who's a bit of a 'talker' myself, it can be hard to refrain from offering all those helpful, interesting, funny stories that-you-reminded-me-of. Especially if you've already asked him to help ("Hey, I'm thinking it'd be fun to look over these photo albums with Dad and Aunt later and hear some of their stories - I really want to know more about the old country. Would you mind helping me out with that?"), I think he'll appreciate your efforts at keeping things focused or at least bringing them back to the topic at hand. Try not to resent the interjection of his own stories, as long as it comes back to the others. And who knows, he might surprise you! People often do.
posted by Lady Li at 9:46 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you should talk to your uncle before the weekend, or pull him aside early on, and say conspiratorially "hey Uncle I have a favor to ask you. Dad and Aunt never talk about their childhoods in the old country and I really want to draw them out a little. You're so good at that-- you are AMAZING at conversation, so can you use your super-powers to help me get them to talk about this stuff?" Enlist his help, so he still feels like he's an active member of the conversation, plus he gets extra attn and flattery from you.
posted by np312 at 10:50 AM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all for the suggestions; Operation Reminisce was a great success. For anyone else attempting this, here's what I did:

- Enlisted Uncle's help by email before the weekend ("Uncle, I really want them to talk about their childhood, but you know how shy they are- can you help me get them talking?"). Also enthusiastically received his suggestion of a slideshow for later in the weekend (which allowed him to focus more on his own history and have his own chance to shine).

- Rented a documentary about the old country.

- When Uncle went for a nap shortly after our arrival, I knew it was time. I got Aunt and Dad in the same room sitting side by side. The timing was perfect as it was literally the first time they'd been alone together without their chatty spouses in about 10 years. I let them start chatting and laughing, then said, "Hey- you wanna watch a documentary about home?" Of course they did, but I deliberately fussed with the DVD player with my back to them as they began talking about home. After a few minutes when they were firmly in a conversation, I quietly put on the doc DVD and intentionally left the volume a little too low so they'd continue talking over it at first. Once they really started talking I muted the volume all together.

- Let them talk a little before bringing out my small handheld DV recorder (which is good for making people unselfconscious as it looks unassuming, small and not very camera-like). Unfortunately this meant I missed the first few stories but I think if I'd started taping earlier they would have talked less.

- Gradually started pointing the camera at them as they talked. I made a point of making eye contact with them as they talked instead of watching them on the screen, so when they looked over at me I seemed interested and engaged in them instead of the camera.

- While they were talking I led them to believe that it was just audio recording, as they would have been self-conscious about being on video. I showed them the video later and they were slightly indignant but not mad- I could tell they were kind of flattered.

- Asked them specific questions about their childhood and didn't lead them too far down a couple of paths I knew they'd be reticent about. Having each other there prompted them both to talk more than they would have otherwise as they reminded each other of old stories. Got some very funny footage of them being contrary with each other.

- Eventually uncle woke up and came down to join us, and because he knew in advance what I was doing, he stayed quiet and listened. It was great having him on-board, and later in the weekend his slideshow was fabulous and the whole extended family loved it, so he had his chance to shine too.

- The end result was about 30 minutes of great footage of Dad and Aunt talking. For the rest of the weekend I backed off and just had fun the normal way. I even had a chance to spend a little time with each person individually, and the weekend was awesome! So thanks so much for all the suggestions!
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:38 AM on October 5, 2009

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