Questions to ask your aunts about their childhood home and their parents
August 29, 2018 10:51 AM   Subscribe

My grandparents died and I want to capture the stories their children have of their home, upbringing, memories, and values that they have. Can you offer some interview questions that may be helpful?
posted by Triumphant Muzak to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
What are some things that you wish you had asked about that you didn't have the guts or foresight to bring up?
posted by Triumphant Muzak at 10:53 AM on August 29, 2018


Have them talk you through their photo albums. Every picture tells its own story, page by page, pull in tight on each one with exposition coming real-time from your interview subject.

Pictures are a wonderful aid to memory

And it's very helpful to have a name to put to every face in their lives
posted by BadgerDoctor at 11:11 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


Are you going to be recording the interviews, or submitting questions in writing, or just taking notes?

A useful starting question is something very open-ended, like "what was it like?" See where they go with that. If they trail off on a word or phrase, it can be good to repeat it, i.e.:
Aunt: And ham, and biscuits, and molasses.
You: [wait a few seconds] ...molasses?
Aunt: Yes, we would get molasses from up the road at [etc. etc. etc. as she continues the train of thought with your encouragement].
Some other questions to evoke reflection:
- Did you ever play pretend when you were a kid? What was your favorite thing to do on a weekend/during summer/in the woods/etc.?
- How would you get in trouble growing up? What did that ("in trouble") look like--what was punishment?
- FOOD. People love to think and talk about food, and scent memories can lead to interesting places. If they say there was a picnic, ask what was served and where it came from.
- Ask about the role of religion or spirituality in the home. Were there any rituals? Any special holidays or traditions?
- How was it in the house when someone had a birthday?
- How was it in the house when someone was sick or injured?
- Did they have friends over? What was that like?
- Were the parents raising kids full-time or were there other caregivers? Occasional babysitters?
- How was the division of household labor?
- How was money discussed, if at all? What were you taught about work and money?
posted by witchen at 11:38 AM on August 29, 2018


I asked a similar question a few years ago and received many great ideas/resources. Maybe some of these will help you.
posted by blurker at 12:17 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


How their parents met?
What were they passionate about?
posted by speakeasy at 12:19 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


I too asked a similar question here.
posted by emkelley at 12:21 PM on August 29, 2018


I like to print up a census. Often looking at a census and neighbors jogs a memory. And peopl elove it.
posted by beccaj at 2:01 PM on August 29, 2018


My biggest advice is to do the interviews two people at a time, or three if necessary. And videotape them!

This serves two purposes:

1) You can't know the really interesting questions to ask. "Tell me about the Pop Tarts"(*) will never occur to you and yet will unveil a personal and in depth look at family dynamics. The people who were actually there know the meaningful questions and will riff off each other for hours.

2) Videotape it because this is often brothers and sisters at their best. This is the record you want the great grandkids to use for their school project. And your cousins will love you for it.



(*) This is probably just an example. Probably.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:35 PM on August 29, 2018


This is a basic genealogy questionnaire that I sent to various relatives. My Mom replied to me, in her lovely hand writing, and I treasure it.

Obviously, you can tailor it to your needs, but I was asking my elderly mother things about her grandparents, because I'd known my maternal grandmother, and knew about my maternal grandfather. Knew about the other side due to my paternal grandmother being a life-long genealogist and my dad's penchant for telling stories (albeit, somewhat embellished or misremembered, but was able to ask my aunts about those).

I found the questions about holiday and family traditions the most interesting, followed by superstitions, and of course, unusual characters in the family.

"Rubbing a bean on a wart was supposed to remove it, and then burying the bean afterward. When two people started a sentence at the same time, you said "spread it!" The same when two people bumped into each other.

When you didn't hear a statement and said, "what?" the other person might say, "I don't chew my cabbage twice."

If you dropped a dish rag, meant company was coming. The same if you dropped a butter knife"

Conversely, my paternal grandmother said if you dropped a fork, it meant company was coming, and her mother also rubbed beans on warts and buried them, at night under the full moon or dark moon, not sure. Just some examples.

This is the basic questionnaire:

1. Where and when do you think your grandparents were born? If they moved or emigrated, please write that down also.

2. Do you recall any stories about their country of origin?

3. What were your holiday traditions, and other family traditions?

4. Do you recall any common superstitions in your family? (such as throwing salt over your shoulder when you spilled it).

5. What remembrances do you have of your grandparents from your childhood?

6. Were there any family members who stand out in your mind as unique individuals?

7. How many brothers and sisters did your parents have? Do you know their names and how old they are in relation to your parents?

8. Do you know anything about your grandparents' siblings?

9. Do you know anything about your grandparents' parents?

10. What did your grandparents do for a living?
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:06 PM on August 29, 2018


You could also ask how historical events they lived through affected them or what they thought about famous people. (A young colleague recently asked me what it was like when the Unabomber was active - this works for any time period.)
posted by FencingGal at 4:24 PM on August 29, 2018


I asked various relatives, "what was my grandparents' marriage like?" and got great answers that still make me smile when I think about the details.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:49 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


Sorry for the less-direct answer, and I haven't used this, but maybe it could give you a framework to work with:
The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide
posted by JulesER at 6:39 PM on August 29, 2018


My Grandmother, Mother, and I all had/have a "Grandparent Book" Not even sure where we got them. All bought in the 70's and 80's. Anywho, they are all books with all those kinds of questions. One that stood out to me was, What perfume did your Mother wear? Also my Brother is much older than me and I got him to draw a diagram of what our Paternal Grandparents home looked like, since I had never met them.
posted by PJMoore at 2:26 PM on August 30, 2018


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