What amazing things have you learned from your grandparents?
March 16, 2011 6:02 PM   Subscribe

My grandmother, who I am close with and value deeply, is in her 90s and still sharp as a tack. What questions should I ask her about her life?

Lately I've had this nagging feeling that I don't have much time left to learn more about her adventures, the experiences she's had living through historic events, or the perspective she's gained from spending close to a century on this planet. I would like start recording some of her memories and thoughts on life.

I don't really know where to start, and would love to hear ideas from other Mefites about good questions or topics I shouldn't forget. What amazing things have you learned from your grandparents?
posted by lalex to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
"What did you like?"
posted by Max Power at 6:05 PM on March 16, 2011

I've loved hearing about my grandparents' immediate family members - grandparents, parents and siblings - that I've never met. My grandmother was the first in her family born on the US, so I loved learning about my (far removed) Italian family members and the cultural differences in her family, plus what it was like adjusting to life in America. I also enjoyed asking my grandmother about her work history, her hobbies and friends when she was younger, to give me are more rounded of idea of who she is as a person. I wish I had the chance to ask my grandfathers about their experiences in the war.

Oh, and if any of your grandparents are big into family cooking, get the recipes and write them down! My grandmother's cooking has been an integral part of our family so I've made sure to get my favorite recipes in writing for the inevitable day she's no longer with us to cook them.
posted by geeky at 6:10 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

IAAGN (I am a genealogy nut). Ask her about her family... as much as you can record or wrote down. Get it all... her parents, grandparents, siblings, family lore. What an opportunity you have!
posted by brownrd at 6:11 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

What was your first car?

What was going on when you graduated from high school?

What was the first movie you ever saw?

Where were you when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor? How did you hear about it?
posted by Leezie at 6:12 PM on March 16, 2011

There's this AMA happening on Reddit with a 96 year old that might give you a sense of what other people want to know.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:13 PM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I bought this book when I decided to learn more about my grandmother. It's a DIY autobiography that provides you with 201 ready-made questions. Have fun!
posted by WaspEnterprises at 6:21 PM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

StoryCorps has booths set up around the county in addition to instructions on how to record your own interviews. They also have a guide with some pretty great sample questions. Here are some recommended questions for grandparents specifically.
posted by Garm at 6:29 PM on March 16, 2011

The last story I heard from my grandpa was also the best. He told me how he used to steal watermelons from a farmer in his area and how angry the farmer used to get. He recounted how he had to push the watermelon ahead of him as he swam across the river to get off the farmer's property and how one day the watermelon exploded in his face because the farmer had shot it (possibly aiming for my grandpa...)

I'd ask her how she used to get into trouble. What she did as a teenager that made her mom's hair turn gray. How she 'hung out' with her friends, what they did for fun. What made her fall in love with Grandpa.? How she felt when she found out she was pregnant with your parent, how she felt when she found out your mom was pregnant with you. What did she want to be when she was a kid and a teenager?

Where she was when WW2 broke out, where she was at V-E Day and V-J Day? Where she was when Kennedy was shot? What did she think about Sputnik? Was life hard for her family during the depression?

Whatever you ask her, make sure you record it. You aren't the only one who will want to know the answer to these questions. Heck, I don't even know your grandma and I'd love to hear the interview(s).
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:01 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

What was her childhood home was like? What they did for fun as kids? What school was like.

Do you know if she was born in the U.S.? Did she immigrate as a kid? Did her parents immigrate before she was born? If she did immigrate here, ask her why they left or why her parents left. Ask for stories about the family's first year in the U.S. If they were all born here, ask what the family stories were about why the great-great-great whatevers moved to the U.S. Almost everyone here is an immigrant of some sort, and often it's not as far back as one might think.

What sort of family traditions did they have around the holidays when she was growing up? What was her favorite holiday food?

What did she do for fun as a teenager? How did she meet your grandpa?

Did she work as a young woman or did she stay home and have a family? Or did she do both?

How did the Great Depression affect her and her family? How did World War Two affect her and her family?

If she's lived in one place for a long time, ask her if she's noticed any big changes in it.
posted by colfax at 7:02 PM on March 16, 2011

Ask her how she lived so long.

I very much treasure the one audio recording I have of my father. I wish I'd interviewed him on hundreds of other topics, instead of his experience in World War II, which is what my 5th grade history teacher wanted to hear about.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 7:10 PM on March 16, 2011

My grandmothers are both in their 90s and I ask them about stuff from their youth all the time. My older grandma, who just turned 96, tells me stories about raising her 8 kids in a tiny town, and what they used to do before they moved into a house with electricity. My younger grandma, who is almost 94, has terrible short-term memory but incredible long-term memory, and she tells me stories about what it was like growing up during the depression and how she felt being the first woman in her family to go to college. She even remembers how they used to make root beer by hand when she was a kid! Her life as a child and young woman is so different than my experiences that it's all completely fascinating to me and I love hearing about it.

So, my advice is to ask them about what life was like when they were young. Ask them about the people they knew, what their day to day life entailed, how things affected them. What was it like the first time they saw television? Things like that are going to be lost with that generation.
posted by bedhead at 7:18 PM on March 16, 2011

Family history should be your number one goal, but I also like asking about sweeping social issues. What happened to the girls who got pregnant while in high school? When did desegregation happen in her town, and what the response? What was she doing during the war? The other war? The other war? Does she remember the introduction of the mini-skirt? How have people and their relationship to religion changed since she was young? How much did people drink? What happened to fatherless children?

All these answers will be subjective and colored by time and outcomes, but they will be fascinating none the less.
posted by jenlovesponies at 7:18 PM on March 16, 2011

Her three best days.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:09 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The most interesting thing I found in my grandmother's house last time I was there was a scrapbook from when she was in the Air Force as a weather girl. It had pictures of her postings, her gal pals, her early days with my grandfather, and it made me realize a few things I wanted to know more about her life. Like, I want to know what she thinks of the crazy insane changes she has seen happen throughout her life. She was born during WWII, and saw the rise of tvs, modern computers, cell phones, iPods, everything. Does she like it better now or then? What are the big events in her life that stand out to her - marrying? divorcing? three kids? Or maybe living in Europe?

The amazing things I have learned from my grandparents is about times I will never see or experience, but that by the grace of long life, be explained to me by people who were there and can relate it to their life which is indirectly my life.
posted by hepta at 8:14 PM on March 16, 2011

Ask her how she met your grandfather, whether or not she dated or was interested in anyone before him, whether or not her parents approved of her grandfather, and ask what dating was like in general when she was young. Ask her about what her parents were like, what her neighborhood was like,

Find out what music her and her friends listened to and danced to, whether they sneaked out to do crazy teenager things, what books she read, what she listened to on the radio and watched on TV when she got her first TV. Find out what she wore, ask her about her first job.

And of course, ask about how the depression, the wars, and other important things in history directly affected her and her family and friends.

My mom actually made her grandmother write a book of memoirs, and it is so fascinating to read! It's also really hard to read, because a lot of it is about poverty and all the horrors they lived through in Russia during WWII, but I am glad my mom made her write the memoirs. So when you hear her stories, write them down, because I'm sure your kids are going to want to read them at some point too.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 8:28 PM on March 16, 2011

Seriously, my dad gave my grandmother one of these and she filled it out until her spidery handwriting was illegible. She also put in an envelope of photos from when she and the family were all very young, and wrote dates and names on the back of them.

Looks cheesy, and you can write down what she says in it if you prefer to ask verbally, but it's a start. Anything not covered there you can make a list of and ask later.

Get the basics first, then other stories, so you don't exhaust her with it, I think. I wish I knew more of my family's own geneology, so this is a good idea.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:41 PM on March 16, 2011

The basics that I regret I didn't get totally nailed down with my grandparents when I had the chance: certain branches of the family tree, beloved recipes (oh my god, to this day my mother, sister, and I don't know precisely how grandma made her chicken fried steak and gravy so perfectly; this is a topic of conversation at least once a year), and wartime experiences.

More broadly, I'm fascinated how people with how people use popular media and adapt to changing technologies. Think of how differently radio, telephone, and telegram technology was used for decades! When did her family switch from an icebox to a refrigerator? What was the first car she learned how to drive? First ride in an airplane? What were her favorite types of entertainment on the weekends (going to "the picture show," dancing, etc.)?

And of course, yes: how did your grandparents meet and fall in love?
posted by scody at 10:44 PM on March 16, 2011

sorry for the random extra "how people" in that sentence...
posted by scody at 10:45 PM on March 16, 2011

Who are some people who helped shape her life for the better? How did they help her or mentor her? Similarly, who did she look up to as a kid and as a young woman? Who are her heroes today? Who was her favorite teacher?

What are some of her most proudest moments -- as a child, as an adult, as a parent?

As Unicorn on the cob mentioned, yes, definitely ask your grandmother about old photographs -- does she have photo albums you could look through together? Aside from writing down details such as dates and names, also write down locations and events if applicable. The photos could also be a springboard to further conversation and more questions about the events in them.

Seconding asking her about radio (as well as TV and movies, but I mention radio again as an old-time radio fan, and since it's much rarer to hear about it). What were her favorite radio shows and characters throughout the years, before television? Comedies? Dramas? Soaps? Favorite actors and actresses? You can download/listen to a lot of old-time radio shows from the web now, so you can hear examples of what she references. If there are shows she talks about with particular fondness, you could even surprise her with a CD of some of her favorites.

This is a topic I've been interested in as well, and I've been collecting ideas from AskMe over the years. Most of the threads I've bookmarked are about interviewing parents rather than grandparents, but they still have lots of suggestions you might find helpful. Here's what I have in my collection so far:

- "What do I ask my Grandma?"
- "What questions should a child ask their parent before the parent dies?"
- "Questions for Mom and Dad" ("What are some creative and interesting questions to ask to get them started talking?")
- "What do you wish you asked / discussed with your parents whilst you still had time?"

There's a lot of good advice and ideas already here and in those previous threads, but on the recording aspect, I think I would stress this: Don't worry too much about whether something is the best for recording or the best for quality, or the best questions to ask. Do whatever works best for you and start as soon as you can. If possible, record as much as you can over various days, and try to make the recording process as simple as possible, so that it's easy for you to set up and record. (Bonus if it's in a format that isn't too time-consuming to edit later, but I would definitely prefer cassette tapes over nothing.) If this is audio-only and not video, be sure to snap a few digital photos (which also serves as a handy way to get separate dates/timestamps of the recordings).

I personally tend to get caught up in the details of recording and really a few key things in this area are:
1. make sure that your voices in the audio (whether video or audio-only) are loud enough but not too loud,
2. take microbreaks every now and then so that you can check that the recording is OK (a good time is if your grandmother needs a minute to think about something), and
3. have backups -- redundancy is good. Record to more than one device if possible.

This is probably all stuff you're well aware of, and I know you didn't specifically ask for recording info, but I wanted to say it just in case.

Also, think about the stories you've heard her tell in the past, and your favorites; be sure to ask her about them again so you can get them recorded for posterity, too. Think about your fondest memories with her, and tell her that you still remember {experience}. This is so she will know you still remember it, and having recorded the story will also mean that you won't forget later, either.
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 11:56 PM on March 16, 2011

It's not helpful, but I'd say "Everything".

My grandparents died a couple of years ago, and these are the things I realised I should have asked them...

* How did they meet?
* Where did my grandmother grow up and what was life like? (All I know is some rambling story about a cousin who owned horses).
* Why did they always stand the same way round in photos?
* Why did they only have one child? There's a vague hint at miscarriages, but I have no idea what.
* What happened with her sister's death?
* Why did they give my father the same name as /his/ uncle and grandfather when they were both still alive?
* Why did she use her middle name?

They're all things I know just enough about to intrigue me but not enough to actually tell the next generation about.

But the point is that this really is one of those "unknown unknowns" type of questions.

The most I learnt from my grandfather was when I managed to get him drunk one night and let him ramble away. Sadly I was drunk too...

One of the most interesting questions was when I asked my grandfather when he first saw a computer and I discovered that he had bought a computer (for the office) when they were room sized. And it had another room the same size just full of air conditioning units. This was about the same time I pissed off his bosses by authorising the construction of a bar in the office basement.

Really... just ask anything. It's like playing the Left-Right game in the car - you have no idea where the hell you'll end up.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 5:30 AM on March 17, 2011

Reddit today
posted by toastchee at 7:14 AM on March 17, 2011

I'm sure she has a box of old photos somewhere. Find it, and get dates, places and peoples names.

Also, I wish I had recorded my grandfather more when he was alive. I really miss the sound of his voice sometimes.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:41 AM on March 17, 2011

Whatever you ask, record it on cassette tape. Yes, cassette tape. Why? Because the handheld recorders are cheap -- I got a Sony one a couple years ago for about $15. Plus the quality is pretty good. And I guarantee you, you'll be able to play a tape far into the future because it's simple technology unlike a lot of digital stuff that even after just a few years isn't compatible anymore (ZIP disk, anyone?). Plus the frustration of trying to transfer and manage something recorded digitally... it could accidentally get erased at the touch of a button, where to erase a tape you have to record over it or store it next to a magnet. You can always transfer it to your computer later. My opinion anyway. Keep it cheap, simple, and reliable.

One reason I kept it simple is that I actually gave the recorder to my 85 year old grandmother, knowing that if all she had to do was hit the red Record button and put in a new tape when it got to the end, it would all get recorded without issue. I gave her a list of things I wanted her to talk about, and a couple months later she got back to me with 2 hours of audio memoirs. She made the tapes about 3 years ago and passed away a year later. So far I've only gotten through 15 minutes, but one day, when I'm ready, the tapes will be there.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 11:32 AM on March 17, 2011

The problem with recording is that a lot of people freeze when they know they're being recorded. (My late father was a fantastic natural-born storyteller, but put a tape recorder in front of him and he got stiff, lifeless and very, very formal.....) Any chance you could sort of 'stealth' record her? Or at least not have the recorder staring smack in her face?

As for what to ask Grandmom: stories are good, but make sure to also go through her photo albums and put down names! Get every fact you can too: every ancestral name, birth & marraige & death dates and locations, emmigration and naturalization info if any, careers, education, professional associations, anything. Got any family heirlooms? Ask about them too: where and how they came into the family.

I wish her many more healthy years: time enough to tell you everything!
posted by easily confused at 1:48 PM on March 17, 2011

« Older Are there any Pagan-friendly interfaith...   |   Canadian wanting to self-publish on Amazon, what... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.