When extended families lived closer together, it was easy to pass on family stories and anecdotes, maybe while cooking dinner or putting children to bed.
“Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go” was essentially how people lived, says John Baick, a history professor at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. Many Americans could walk or ride to relatives’ homes, and shared meals often. That created a natural place for passing on family history and re-telling the stories that help us understand where we come from.
In post-war America, says Baick, as families spread out to far-flung suburbs and beyond, gatherings with extended family became rarer. Now, holiday meals can be among the only opportunities to ask relatives about their lives and their recollections of previous generations.
This holiday season, along with planning menus and decorating, consider collecting family stories and bits of precious data that otherwise might be lost forever.
Although a room full of relatives might seem the perfect place to gather stories, tread carefully, especially with older relatives, says Dr. Elisabeth Burgess, director of the Gerontology Institute at Georgia State University.
“Being in large groups of people, while exciting, can be overwhelming and can cause people to withdraw,” she says. Consider finding a quiet room to talk, or invite one or two older relatives to arrive before other guests.
“If Great Aunt Susie is coming over before the meal and she’s going to sit in the kitchen with you while you prepare the meal, that’s a great time to talk,” Burgess says. “Asking her about meals when she was growing up and holiday dinners she cooked while you are preparing your own meal may draw out stories that you’ve never heard before.”
Let older relatives know in advance that the rest of the family would be glad to hear their stories, she recommends: “Saying, ‘I don’t think the younger generation has heard your stories about World War II. Do you think we could make time to tell those stories?’”
Ask family members to bring old photos, and reassure them that you’ll treat these fragile prints gently, says Heather Parker, associate dean in the School of Arts & Sciences at Saint Leo University, in St. Leo, Fla.
If there isn’t a scanner where your gathering is happening, consider bringing a portable one. Relatives might be more willing to bring vintage photos if they know they won’t be asked to leave them there. If a scanner isn’t possible, then use a good smartphone camera with plenty of memory, and take clear, well-lit digital photos of the vintage prints.
You may find that older relatives want to discuss the portraits and photos that are mainly of faces. But those images will only tell you so much. Examine photos with more context, like those taken in a public place, even if they’re not as attractively composed as the staged portraits. Street scenes can offer nuggets of information about the location and date of photos, and about community history or historical context.
Have a magnifying glass handy, says Parker, to “look in the background of the picture, because that’s going to be where some of the story is going to emerge.”
Ask about other people
It’s often hard to get elderly relatives to open up about themselves, Baick says. “If you can, get them talking about other things, other people.”
For example, he says: Ask your grandfather, “What was it like for Grandma to take care of Dad?” rather than asking him about himself. “That could lead to a dam bursting,” Baick says.
To help coax memories out, prepare some printed photos of historical events that occurred during your relatives’ lifetimes. If they discuss their impressions and experiences during those moments in history, personal details may emerge.
Music also works well toward that end. “With our phones, there’s no reason why we can’t identify the top songs of any era really fast,” Baick says. “What was it like to listen to the radio? What was it like to own an album?”
Also, ask relatives in advance to bring old correspondence to spark conversations.
“Often they have written letters and documentation,” Burgess says. “That’s another source of family history that we don’t think about, especially because we live in this email, texting world.”
Lastly, avoid “yes or no” questions or very broad, open-ended ones. Rather than “Did you like your childhood?” or “What was life like when you were young?,” start with something open but specific, like, “What toys do you remember having when you were a child?”
Family members interested in gathering stories can brainstorm ahead of time, Burgess says, to discuss “what are some of the things we’re interested in knowing about Great Uncle Bob’s childhood or Mom’s work life?”
It’s important to record the stories and details that bubble up, but be respectful.
In any family, “sometimes things are going to come out that no one expected or no one is going to want to talk about,” Parker says. “You have to be prepared to understand how far you can push someone in the conversation.”
Relatives may feel more comfortable if they know what you’re planning to do with the memories and facts you gather. They also might find audio recording less intimidating than video.
And remember that earlier generations were raised in a generally more reticent, less confessional time, Parker notes: “They’re not as comfortable baring their souls as we are.”