by Sherry Stocking Kline
First published in the Wichita Eagle’s Active Life Magazine – April 2002
Getting Grandpa to talk about the “good ole’ days” really isn’t as hard as you might think. All you have to do is set the stage, bring along some props, and be prepared with plenty of questions.
Pat Gaddie grew up listening to her Grandpa Sam tell his Irish jingles, share stories about blue racer snakes chasing him through fields, and the wagon trip he made in 1902 when he was eighteen and his family moved from Tennessee to Oklahoma.
“He lived next door to us when I was small,” Gaddie said, “and when I was eight or nine years old, he used to tell stories to entertain me.”
How to Keep Them Story Telling…
Not everyone enjoys reminiscing, but if your Grandpa (or Grandma) does, here are a few tips to keep them story telling.
Decide what you want to know, make a list of questions, then ask the most important ones first.
What’s your priority? Is it facts, figures, dates, and places, the who begat who and where or when, or is it the stories that you want to hear?
Are there family legends that you want to verify or clarify, or do you want to hear how he proposed to Grandma, laugh about the night he and his bride were chivareed, or see D-Day through his eyes?
Set the stage.
Old photographs and family memorabilia are great memory triggers, and can prompt a flood of memories, so bring out the high school play bills and yearbooks, wedding photos, and photographs of the plane Grandpa flew in the service. When he shows you the photo of his first car, be sure and ask him about the job he took to pay for it.
Take field trips to old schools, cemeteries, and other meaningful places, and travel to Grandpa’s hometown and drive by his old schoolhouse. You may learn who put the snake in the teacher’s desk, the story behind Grandpa’s nickname, and more.
Remember that Grandpa’s dates may be approximate, as he’ll likely remember events as happening “the year of the big blizzard, the summer of the drought, or just before Beverly was born”.
Bev Malone interviews older family members to flesh out stories and verify the information.
“The best way to get the stories flowing about family members is to ask about people and things, not personalities,” Malone said.
Make sure your cameras, and audio or video recorders have fresh batteries, and take along spares. If you need an extra memory card for your cameras (or film) be sure to take that along, too.
“Recorders can make people nervous,” Malone said, so she breaks the ice by asking, “Do you mind if I tape this? My brain can’t keep it all in my head.”
Take notes, just in case technology lets you down, and transcribe your notes as soon as possible.
Need help with your list of questions?
There are books that can help, such Emily Anne Croom’s “Unpuzzling Your Past Workbook” with questions tailored for different decades in history, and Janice T. Dixon’s “Family Focused” with question lists and suggestions to help you conduct interviews and gather information.
What’s Dixon’s advice in “Family Focused” to interviewers?
“Be relaxed, don’t interrupt, don’t contradict, and don’t ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no.”
“Keep the flow of conversation going,” Dixon said, “you can go back and ask questions later.”
Gaddie cherishes and shares her Grandpa Sam’s stories with her family, a process that can add valuable information to your research as well as give you new questions to ask.
With a little planning, the next time you visit Grandpa, you may learn more about your grandfather, your parents – perhaps even yourself.