I'm asking what to ask...
December 16, 2011 11:28 PM   Subscribe

If you were talking to a 101-year-old person, what would you want to know?

My great grandma is one of the coolest people I know. She is still in really good shape (living on her own in the house my grandpa grew up in) and remains sharp as a tack. Since she isn't getting any younger, though, I've decided to finally follow through with my plans to do some oral history with her.

The stories I've heard of hers have been really interesting -- she had a brother doing some sort of legal thing for the military during WWII, saw Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House Easter Egg roll, and said brother later ended up being an artist and living in Mexico with his black (male) partner. I'm interested as much in the more exciting things (Eleanor Roosevelt) as in the more mundane things (she learned how to bake bread during the Great Depression, because the Red Cross was giving out flour and she had to figure out what to do with it).

So... if you were talking to my great-grandma (or any other Really Old Person), what would you want to know? I'm definitely going to make things more open-ended and let her talk about where her mind goes instead of interrogating her, but I'd like to have a significant list of potential topics. (Also, on an related note, although I am a historian, my knowledge of 20th-century American history isn't as good as it maybe should be. Any good recommendations for a few general histories of the period would be appreciated. Scholarly or popular is fine; more interested in social and cultural history than political/military/diplomatic.)
posted by naturalog to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I'd like to know what she did on a daily basis as a girl/young woman - what kind of chores, what she did for fun, what things were important to her, if she was allowed to go out unchaperoned, what was her favorite kind of music, did she like to dance (and what kind of dancing!), how she did her hair, what kind of dresses she wore, what kind of advice her parents gave her...

what an incredible thing to be able to spend time with your great grandma.
posted by HopperFan at 11:33 PM on December 16, 2011

She is just a couple of years younger than my Grandma.

Some of the more interesting things she talked about:

-Being the first generation of American women who could vote and what that meant to her.
-Actually seeing the beginning of the transition from horse to auto and the crazy technological advances since then. This will be even more extreme if she grew up rurally.
-Did her family travel by car in the 20s and 30s? Auto routes and the logistics of getting a Model T even 300 miles were crazy.
-When was the first time she put on pants and wore them in public (as opposed to around the house or for sport or work)? Mine said that it was Summer of 1942 and she felt like she was walking around in her underwear it was so uncomfortable.

I really like Modern Times for an approachable 20th century history.
posted by Tchad at 12:09 AM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

She would have been an adolescent or a teenager during the most active period of the expatriate lost generation, Algonquin Round Table, all that. Was she aware of those trends in literature? If so, did she read them and was she influenced by them? Were they as popular or groundbreaking to her then as we consider them to be now?

Was she moved by Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, as a "mid-lifer"? What concerts or shows does she remember; which were her favorites?

How common was everyday swearing, and how did the norms shift, if they have?

How prevalent was religion in her life, and has she noticed any change over the years in terms of the general American approach?

She is a painter who lived through momentous upheavals in art, from Picasso to Duchamps to de Koening. If she was making art then, what was her experience of those shifts? What was the rise and dominance of photography and then cinema like?

I'm sure I have more, but that's probably enough. I was fortunate enough to meet my great-grandmother once, only for a few hours and with a language barrier between us, mitigated only by imperfect translation.. It still remains one of the best and most lucid conversations of my life. I envy you a great deal.
posted by Errant at 2:24 AM on December 17, 2011

My really amazing uncle just turned 102 and the coolest things we talk about are his take on the news, how the war changed his life, and his advice is amazing on life in general...
posted by misspony at 2:35 AM on December 17, 2011

Since she was probably born in 1910, she was a kid during the FIRST World War --- what does she remember about it and the changes it brought? For instance, did any family members leave home to fight it (and any stories they might have told about their experiences), does she remember things like food conservation or scrap metal drives to support the war, how about the parades at the end when the soldiers came home?

What about her parents? What were her parents like, how and where did they live; were they (and she!) born here or immigrants (and what was that immigrant experience like). Where did she go to school, and what was that like?

Where and how did she meet your great-grandfather? How long did they know each other before they got married, and what was their first home like? How was her life affected by Prohibition and the Great Depression? Who did she cast her first vote for, and how did her husband feel about women voting?

Fashions have changed DRASTICALLY over her lifetime: after all, she was born in the era of ankle-lenght dresses! Does she have a favorite era or style? She probably married in the flapper era; how did her husband feel about the 'daring' new styles and shorter shirts?

Have lots of old photos and albums on hand when you talk to her; you can use those as both illustration of what you're asking about as well as prompts for more questions.
posted by easily confused at 3:17 AM on December 17, 2011

What stories did her grandparents tell her.
posted by kjs4 at 3:58 AM on December 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Yes, the stories her family told her and genealogical information! Also about changes in domestic life, along the lines of the second graf in a recent answer of mine. Did she pluck chickens, gather and candle eggs, help beat the carpets?
posted by jgirl at 5:15 AM on December 17, 2011

Since you are an historian, this may be stating the obvious, but I would drag out my family history, sit down with her, and try to fill in any gaps. If there are no gaps in the factual information, I would try and flesh out some of the people that she may have known - their personalities, their interests, their traits.
posted by brownrd at 5:21 AM on December 17, 2011

My father is in his 90's, and some of the more interesting things we have talked about besides the big stuff like the Depression and WWII and the Cold War have been what it was like when they first got a radio and his favorite programs, early telephones and party lines, early cars and driving (his first car was an old Model A Ford and you could get a license without taking a test, and there were no traffic lights or many traffic signals to speak of), indoor plumbing because even if she had it growing up plenty of others did not, what it was like to cope with summer heat before air conditioning, and stories about his parents and grandparents. One of his grandfathers fought in the Civil War and told him some stories about that that were fascinating, for example. Food is another great topic and can be seasonal - so what did she have for breakfast growing up, what were Christmas or other holidays like and what did you eat, including what punch did people serve, birthday cake, etc., what pets if any did you have (my mother-in-law raised chickens and had some great stories). What kind of stove did you have (I am assuming a coal stove and coal heat probably they can be pretty quirky to deal with). My mother had stories about the ice box and ice men delivering the ice, etc. ... questions about bicycles and did she ride one, what was it like in the winter and what winter activities did you do.
posted by gudrun at 5:52 AM on December 17, 2011

I'm definitely going to make things more open-ended and let her talk about where her mind goes instead of interrogating her

I suppose it depends on her personality, but this approach was an awful failure with my elderly grandfather. We'd ask him to talk about being a medic in WWII and he'd say, "I was stationed in a hospital outside London. It wasn't very exciting." but when we asked him specific questions ("Who we're your friends over there? What was it like when the war ended?") we learned about his (probably gay) friend in the barracks who was the company tailor and custom tailored the uniforms of all his friends even though they were just enlisted men and how he and another buddy won the lottery they held to get leave on V-E day and they went down to London where everyone was running around hugging and partying.

Be specific and ask tons of follow-up questions to get the real juicy details.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:52 AM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you think the world has gotten better or worse in your lifetime, and why?
posted by heatvision at 6:19 AM on December 17, 2011

> Do you think the world has gotten better or worse in your lifetime, and why?

I don't think this is a very productive approach. I agree with Rock Steady: Be specific and ask tons of follow-up questions. I started recording conversations with my father along these lines and got some great stuff; unfortunately, I didn't keep it up very long (and now can't find the tapes, but that's another issue).
posted by languagehat at 6:37 AM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've done a few oral history interviews for grad school and the biggest thing to remember is to let her talk. Our instinct is to engage people and talk with them, but most people don't get fully into storytelling mode while doing the back and forth of conversation. The Oral History Association has a ton of information on the how-to side of interviewing.
As to questions, the daily life stuff, what sort of things her parents taught her, what she did for fun, etc. One of the neatest random piece of an interview I had was an African American gentleman eventually talked his way into explaining how his understanding of Civil War and black soldiers changed after visiting battlefields. Basically just give her space to talk and think her way though to figuring out how her past fits into the world.
posted by teleri025 at 7:11 AM on December 17, 2011

I’m always interested in the day-to-day activities. I do these for a group here and I try to get the interviewee to paint a picture of a particular period in his or her life. My goal is than in a few years from now when a twelve year old kid reads or listens to it, they can visualize what life was like, see how it compares to their life and be able to look around at their world and see how things have changed.

It can be a bit time consuming, but I start with what a particular area looked like and build with very specific questions. Try to create the scene in your mind and then start asking about what people were doing, thinking and then why the particular events were happening. If you can envision it, so can your future reader.
posted by iscavenger at 7:12 AM on December 17, 2011

If you have old pictures it can be a great way to talk about a specific period (oh that's from on the farm right after Sue was born, etc)
posted by raccoon409 at 8:52 AM on December 17, 2011

Along the lines of a recent anti-suicide (or is it gay pride?) campaign I'd like to know when did it get better for her? My grandfather left me with this "Everything gets easier after you turn 40" and I really hung onto that, it really helped me, although in my life it turned out to be "Everything gets better after you turn 50". Did she have a transition when everything became easier?
I'd like to know how she, herself, felt despite what economic or social upheavals were going on. Did she enjoy her thirties? Did she feel like she needed to marry by a certain time? Did she like retiring? Were here 80s different from her 90s? Was there a point when she stopped worrying about everything? Would she like to be 19 again? I'd also like to know how she went along hormone-wise - she may not want to talk about it but I think it's a good thing to pass down to women- how you dealt with different stages of reproduction. Mainly because it may follow patterns in families. For example, in my family women may have a hard time hormone-wise between 30 and 40 but then things even out and you feel better in your 40s. How did her hormones treat her? If you are right in the middle of a terrible time it may really help to know what your family history is.
posted by cda at 9:42 AM on December 17, 2011

Nthing asking for her specific memories, particularly pertaining to certain innovations, such as the family's first radio, TV or dishwasher. Then go off on whatever tangents - what radio program was "must" listening for her family? How did they keep cool on hot summer nights before air conditioning? (My parents slept outside on the porch in their Detroit homes in the 1940s when they were kids and the stifling humid air inside was unbearable.) What was considered very bad behavior in school - a student talking back to the teacher, or playing hookey, or....? How did she celebrate New Year's Eve once she was 21 years old and able to go out "on the town" (Prohibition had not yet been repealed that year - did she and her friends still ring in the New Year with liquor?) Did she don her finest gown and dancing shoes and stay out to all hours? What was the main topic of school-girl gossip among her friends when she was in her late teens....did girls talk about what they did with boys on dates, and did she know anyone personally who'd "gone all the way"? How old was she before her mother let her wear lipstick and other cosmetics? Did any of her friends have divorced parents?
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:05 AM on December 17, 2011

My grandfather is 102, and at his birthday last month, my family read out the questions so that he could join this community through the Xprize's longevity project (note: must be born before January 3, 1913 to join - which is probably the only place you'll find that caveat on the internet). The questions are:

In the last 100 years, what invention had the most impact on your life? Why?
What was your favorite decade? Why?
What advice would you give to a high school graduate today?
What is the most important lesson you learned in your life?
What leader in the past century impressed you the most? Why?

My grandfather actually outlived the contract on his agreement to donate his body to science, so we're all pretty excited that they might sequence his genome, instead.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:13 AM on December 17, 2011

Honestly, I'd ask: was 60-70 good? What about 70-80? Do you look back at 80-90 and 90-100 as good years or just waiting for the end?

posted by rr at 10:49 AM on December 17, 2011

I keep linking to this weird old book on MeFi, but you might try to get ahold of Voices of American Homemakers. It's oral histories of women based on some interesting questions from an unusual perspective; less "tell me about WWII" and more "tell me about the invention that made the biggest difference to your home life." Washing machines didn't become widespread until the 40s, and it's difficult to grasp how much sheer domestic labor went into keeping a family washed and ironed before then, and what a change things like washers and hoovers brought about.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:03 AM on December 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

(Ma. Vegetable)
Ask when she got in trouble as a kid and what for. One of my grandmothers got her dad, who could not read or write, to sign a note excusing her from school. She had gone to a dance. She also was the "mom" to her siblings and didn't have indoor plumbing on the farm.

My other grandmother was divorced when it was very unusual; she also raised her kids on her own and had her own business. I was named after her aunt; in Grandmommy's words, she was an old bat. Isn't that great? Cracks me up.

Both of them are now deceased. Those are the specific topics I would have loved to learn more about if they'd been willing to talk about them.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:29 PM on December 17, 2011

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