It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in the US and that traditionally means lots of time with family. While our dinner tables this year will look quite different for many of us (thanks, COVID-19), it doesn’t mean we have to forego learning more about our family history. An old-school phone call or even a Zoom interview are great ways to dig deeper into our genealogical roots – often unlocking new branches or investigative journeys we didn’t think to take before.
You can quite easily Google a list of top questions to ask relatives or family members but many of them, at least in my opinion, are designed to help tell an oral history or gathering basic information. Both of these are important endeavors, but this post is designed for the folks who are looking to add more color and depth to their family history research. To tell the stories behind the names.
So here is my list of the top five questions to ask your family this holiday season. What else would you add to the list?
- What family stories or memories were passed down to you from your parents or grandparents? Every family has some degree of family lore. In my family, those stories go back two or three generations. But in some families, the folklore goes back a century or two and have been told countless times – almost like a game of “telephone.” Each person and generation hears the story slightly differently (often with details added or forgotten) and so by the time you hear it, the legend may be completely different from the truth. While we may never know what “truth” is when it comes to family folklore, the story itself can be a useful starting point to dig further and do deeper research using DNA results, newspaper searches or other written accounts.
- If you could ask your ancestors something, what would it be? While most of our older relatives will not proactively bring long-held family secrets out into the light, many of these untold stories are hidden away in unanswered questions. You can get closer to the light by probing around the edges and this question is a great way to open the door! Like any good journalist, you may need to ask the question a few different ways at a few different times but eventually, you’ll hit genealogical pay dirt.
- Did you have a nickname growing up? Nicknames are surprisingly common in many records, particularly census records, obituaries, and other informal records. And so it’s a good idea to have a sense of all name variations in the event you hit an eventual road block. In fact, nicknames may have been the only names that he/she was known by to their friends and family. Asking about nicknames or pet names can also be a great source of storytelling that likely does not exist in any written form!
- What’s your earliest memory? I love this question because it’s a great way to learn more details about what your relative’s everyday life was like growing up. For example, did they sleep in the same room as their siblings? What was that like? Do they recall certain foods or smells and emotions? It’s a wonderful way to bring color and life to the often dry dates and numbers of traditional records.
- Who was the oldest person you remember growing up (grandmother, grandfather, etc)? Most people will not be able to remember full historical accounts about their grandmother or great-grandfather but they can often share details or glimpses of his/her personality. For example, I can’t remember much about my great grandfather but I can remember one fuzzy memory where I climbed on his lap and he called me “pudding head.” (don’t ask me why my nickname was “pudding head” because I have no explanation!) It’s a small detail but one that can add additional color to an ancestor’s life history.
If you’ve asked any of these questions, what stories did you uncover? Drop us a note in the comments.