Question of the Week: What tips do you have for interviewing relatives?

+15 votes

We're heading into Reunion Season! It's always good to be well-prepared before getting together with your extended family members. Share with us your plans for interviewing your relatives.

What tips do you have for organizing a family reunion?

If you could hop in the time machine again, which ancestor would you bring back to attend the reunion?


Question courtesy of The Forest Elf

asked in The Tree House by Julie Ricketts G2G6 Pilot (254k points)
Great question this week Julie...can't wait to hear the responses.

Thanks, Keith! Me too!!
In my case, I had tons of material on my father's side. I got my mom to take me to her grandparents' burial place. I got two more generations back from that family burial plot. And her (gossipy) remarks about some of those long-gone relations opened up more avenues, too.
Take a recorder with you, not only will you have a first hand record of their memories, you will also have their voices. I wish I had been interested in genealogy when my grandmother was still living. I would love to have her voice telling me about her memories of covered wagons and Indians!
We were at a dead end  researching my wife's father's family, but at a family reunion in 1975 her 80 year old widowed aunt attended and  claimed to not know anything useful. After just two glasses of wine the dear lady told us all bout her grandfather and his Civil War service which I taped.. From that   information we obtained his records from the Government and were able to trace his family back to Europe in the 1600s.
The last ancestor I interviewed was my grandfather in North Carolina. I knew his health wasn't great and I videoed him and asked him to tell stories. Once he got going to didn't stop. My favourite story is about Moonshiners in the mountains who showed up at a church he was pastoring.

I suppose my biggest tip is to get them to tell stories, ask open-ended questions (not those with yes/no answers) and get them to reminisce, perhaps also getting them to show memorabilia to you with stories attached. Using video or audio is really helpful, even if you are scribbling down notes as you go. Plus in this day and age is brings a who new treasure trove of sources for later.

My grandfather died in 2013. I'd give anything to have one more reunion with him. His hog roasts were unlike any I've had before or since. He was a great man.

16 Answers

+6 votes
Best answer

My biggest tip is to never assume that you'll remember the interview. Upload your recording or type up a document with the interview info (for safe keeping) right away. You will thank yourself later.

Another is to look for the evidence behind what your living family is saying. I spent years confused because my grandma had mixed up her grandma's maiden and married name. She had never met her grandma who died when her mother was only nine-months-old. Sadly, I didn't find out who her grandmother's parents were until after my own grandma passed away.

If I could bring back any ancestor for a family reunion, it would definitely be Ann Poore. A Tennessee native who married Jacob Hufhines, the son of German immigrants. I would ask her who her parents were and where did they come from. I'd ask her if she remembered her grandparents. I'd also be interested in what her life was like, seeing as she was born around 1805!

answered by Jourdi Cleghorn G2G6 Mach 2 (26k points)
selected by Patricia Cofield
Thanks for selecting my answer for the week.
+7 votes

I gave one of my granddaughters a list of questions I found online and told her to ask them. I forgot how literal kids can be sometimes and it was a good thing the grandmother she questioned understands because she asked her when she expected to die, oops. The list of questions can be found by clicking on the link “52 Questions in 52 Weeks.” found here

answered by Dale Byers G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
+9 votes

When I first started my family genealogy back in 1985 or so. I knew nothing but one question " Where did " I " come from " ? I knew some family, sure, as we all do. I wanted to know the deeper  answer for myself. "WHO AM I "?  I started out simple .

 I sent " basic questions " on paper to each Aunt and Uncle  plus Grandparents along with a self addressed stamp envelope. and waited impatiently for all my answers.

After that, I did it once again , however,  on this one I approached my questions with my memories and waited impatiently for my answers.

A few years later  I asked my Grandmother to write me her" Life Story " and she did. She went one step further and wrote my Grandfathers life story as well.


Then I went on to get certificates...

Births, Deaths, Wills, Census, Bible records and so on.

answered by Hazel Inglis G2G6 (6.8k points)
My great grandfather, who died in 1903, was an avid amateur genealogist. (Also an abolitionist preacher in his younger years.) His papers all came to me, including his correspondence. When he identified a second cousin, he'd send them a letter. I don't imagine they all wrote back, but many did.

There were c. 4,000 names when I entered it in software. I put most all of it on an tree, though I didn't upload all the letters &c. Occasionally, I'll get a query. "I've been stuck - for years - trying to get my 3g grandmother's LNAB. What's your source?" I get the biggest smile when I can send a scanned letter from the grandson who knew her, written back in the 1800s. You never know who's going to be thrilled over something like that. Totally gratifying.
+6 votes
If I could hop in the time machine and bring back an ancestor for the family reunion...that's a hard question! Someone who was alive during the destroyed 1890 census perhaps? : )
answered by Kari Wentworth G2G6 (9k points)
I always started with "where did you go to school and who were your best friends, boy does that open up a  story, we all remember our best friends at school, THEN lead on very carefully from there, where did you grow up and did you have your own room. I found it put an early picture in the person's mind and from that background can come the important stuff.
I was born too late to ask, but I sure wish I knew how my great grandparents met. (They grew up in different time zones.) That's a good question to ask any couple. "How did you meet?" But, also: "Did you have a favorite song?" aka "What song did you have the first dance at your wedding?" Neither are genealogical directly, but it sure helps fill out the vital stats. And can trigger memories of others.

I think that ggrandmother is the one I'd like to meet. Though many of the questions are about her parents, and maybe she couldn't answer all those. I remember her a little, but she died when I was 7, so I wasn't ready to ask questions yet. So maybe her father, whose father died when he was 14. He was the oldest, and I think he took off on his own rather than take on the mantle of being "man of the family." So maybe him. He's got a lot of missing years.
+6 votes
I just had a family reunion in U.K. It took me 16 years to find them

And when I only last week was meeting them it was like we have been together always. They are born in shanghai my grandmother Alice Young her dad came from paisley in Scotland and move to china where he meet my grandmothers mother An-jing who was Chinese.

She had a brother call William young and it is his grandchildren I meet up with. I thought they where still living in Shanghai but they where living in England.

I all started 16 years ago when I start to get interested in genealogy. A friends cousin was very good a genealogy

But then I got hold of Scotland people a very helpful man. He told me to contact Bute newspaper where my grandmothers other sister Elizabeth was move too. The put twice and article in the newspaper trying to found out about my family. Unfortunately no response.

Then Scotland people put a article in there newspaper and then I started getting e mail about my family and one day my got a mail about my family. You wrote them a mail and they reply and we started talking a lot on the phone.

And 12 may we fly to London where my family greet us in the airport and I meet up with my family to had quiet a big family.

I we really had a wonderful time together. My cousin are coming to Copenhagen with a cruise 14 june I will collect her on the ship and I know we will have a wonderful time together

They are all wonderful people and I am so happy for the reunion

My best advice meet up if you have a chance
answered by Susan Laursen G2G Astronaut (1.4m points)
+9 votes
Do it NOW.  Do not wait for the appropriate moment. Do it NOW because those wonderful folks with the tales and answers won't be here if you wait until it is convenient or itʻs a holiday weekend or when grampa dies and you suddenly remember to ask grandma.

Both sides of my family worked on genealogy and we all talked to the older relatives.  But we still have so many questions that could have been answered if we had just done it THEN, because we cannot do it NOW.
answered by Kristina Adams G2G6 Pilot (134k points)
I think this is the best advice, Kristina. Don't wait until you have the perfect questions or just the right location or anything it now, because you will regret it if you don't. (I know I do!)
I also agree!  Don't wait until you golden years to begin to get interested in your genealogy.  I have been working on our Turner History for about 50 years.  When I started no one else was interested.  Then 30 days later my kin have decided they want to know more about their families before them. Ha! Yes, they want all that I have spent 50 years to collect, record, copy, interview, traveling to cemeteries and courthouses and visiting and interviewing the oldest family members and relatives I could find.  I have collected a treasure trove of information, documents and relatives through the years.  So glad I was the story teller chosen from my family so many years ago.
+5 votes

I first got the genealogy bug when closing down my widowed, childless uncle's place when Alzheimer's got too overwhelming. (In the form of four crates of diaries, correspondence and genealogy work his father, uncle and grandfather did over half a century.) Uncle's emergency room crisis that meant he never went "home" again happened on 9/11, and he never was able to remember those crashing airplanes because his short term memory was that far gone. I had a variety of responsibilities. I learned quickly that the more he was distracted from the confusing, cacophonous present, the better. He had boxes and boxes of pictures, many unlabeled. Some of our best times back then were when I got him talking about stories and memories triggered by the pictures. Even without Alzheimer's, it's a great way to trigger memories. And it's a really good thing to get the people in old pix IDed while there's still someone around who remembers them!

In a non-genealogical vein: Some years back, I had a tribal environmental job. I gathered some historic pix (Denver Public Library, Library of Congress kinda public sources.) Many of the tribes ban cameras from a lot of events nowadays where they didn't know what those Kodak cameras were when they first showed up in the 1890s, and many have since found their way to various archives. My job occasionally required making presentations to an advisory panel of elders. One day I showed up with a pile of said library pictures, and the room went wild, with the convening gavel being postponed. All kinds of talk about when the first sewing machines came and where they dried fruit in the fall and how they cleared snow. So on and so forth.

FYI: If ever you've got an Alzheimer's patient to look after, I've got a tip. When you find a joke, repeat it. Often! Every half hour or so!! There's a lot that's challenging about that caretaker role. It's cool to be able to get that fresh, delighted laughter over and over and over and over again for the same punchline, and it keeps the afflicted one relatively happy. Not unlike the old pictures do.

answered by Elizabeth Winter G2G6 Mach 6 (62k points)
edited by Elizabeth Winter
Love this response.
+4 votes
Memories are triggered. They don't come from answering questions. Take a  recording device and let the conversation ramble. If the person is a story teller you might get the genealogy of the whole area over time. The picture ideas are good but again, if you let the person ramble on you will get much more useful information in the long run. You can order it logically later.
answered by Morag M G2G2 (2.2k points)
+4 votes
Some years ago my son inter viewed his G-Granmother & taped the whole thing, this is one of the most vauled items we could ever own.

He not only has answers to all the questions he asked, but we have the answers in her own voice, forever preserve.

My best advice is 2 things.



answered by Beverly Fisher G2G1 (1.6k points)
+4 votes
When I first did some in-depth interviewing of relatives for a psychotherapy course I was warned be very careful! This surprised me until it was explained that many families have sensitive and 'no-go' areas so some questions could illicit a strong reaction. Some families have cherished stories that may be incorrect that hide 'family secrets' and have been passed down. In looking at many family histories the things that can be hidden include 'insanity' in the family, drug taking, prostitution, crime and extra marital births and affairs. These things start to be uncovered with serious family research if there is good information somewhere or unexpected DNA matches.
answered by D Mackay G2G Crew (530 points)
Anonymous Mackay, I totally agree.  I honestly believe that is what has happened in our Turner lineage.  So many things, just did not fit when we began to search for answers.  It is not really accepted when you come up with something different than what has been handed down from generation to generation. So I learned the importance of sources and documentation! Hearsay just don't give the results we needed.  Don't get me wrong all those stories told my family elders are treasures, because picked apart, they all had information that others didn't have.  Names of places and towns that were the same name, but in a different State, began to unravel some progress in searching for our ancestors other than locally.   Little by little the search goes on, progress is slow. You become unpopular when you disprove family tales of lore.
+4 votes
If I could bring someone back to our Turner Reunion in Calhoun County, MS, I would get the Brick Wall builders....John and Sarah Turner both born in SC.

We all have many questions we want to ask them, Birth and Death dates and places, who were their parents, and siblings. Other than names in the family Bible, we cannot find their names together anywhere.  They had 10 children, all  children's descendants are at the same brick wall for proof and documentation with sources for the above named.

ggggrandmother Sara Turner, Just what exactly was your maiden name??? Inquiring minds want and need to know.!!
answered by
Is this my Sarah Turner that you messaged me about? Any information you have about your Sarah Turner might help me to connect mine to yours. :-)
+4 votes
Here are a few my genealogy teacher gave us:

How did your family come to live where you were born?

What is your earliest childhood memory?

What kind of games did you play when you were young?

What were your household chores? What was your least favorite?

Were you ever in the newspaper or on tv?

What world events do you remember? Did they impact your family?

Of all the things you learned from your parents, what was the most valuable?
answered by Angelique Chamberlain G2G5 (5.2k points)
+3 votes
Ask about little things as well as major life events, for detail and historical reference. Did you vote in elections? Who did you support and what did you like about him/her? Where did you go on your first date with your spouse (or even on your first date, period!) Did you have pets? How old were you when you learned to drive and who taught you? etc.  These little details are fun for future generations to learn about.
answered by Natalie Trott G2G6 Pilot (360k points)
+3 votes
When a family reunion is on the calendar, begin to prepare people to share information and photos.  Contact relatives and ask them to bring their old family photos, pictures of family heirlooms,  genealogies or family bibles they may possess, etc.  Send them basic pedigree charts to fill out and bring to the reunion.  Send them open ended questions to answer or to be ready to answer.  You can do the same things with individuals no having reunions.
answered by Sharon DiLuvio G2G6 Mach 1 (16.4k points)
+3 votes
Bring pictures or other items with you to help jog memories.

Ask interesting, open-ended questions to get relatives to tell you about their lives - something more than dates and places. What was it like when you went to school? How did you learn to drive?  What pets did you have?  What recipes did you get from your mother (or other relative)?

Be sure to interview the in-laws!  I learned a lot of interesting things about my great grandmother from her daughter-in-law that I never heard from Grandma.
answered by Star Kline G2G6 Pilot (495k points)
+1 vote
Take a tape recorder, or video them with your cell-phone. Take notes while they talk. Ask open ended questions and not yes/no questions.

If you can get more than one person in on the conversation, they will warm up and start having memories and talk more.

Don't just wait for a family reunion. Talk to them whenever you get a chance. Write everything down, and don't think that you will remember it.

Do like I did and start early. Write your own memories down. There are things you will hear your elders talk about when you are a kid. When you are in your 30's start taking notes.  Your memory will not be good forever, and they won't be around.

I started writing notes for my son when he was young. When he died three years ago, I started reading the notes, and some of the memories, I had already forgotten.

All of these things are important in your search for your family history.

Start today - don't wait.
answered by Cheryl Hess G2G6 Pilot (127k points)

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