Family history work is about more than dates and places, though those facts are important. It’s about more than providing temple ordinances, though sealing families together is certainly the end goal. In its purest form, family history work is about strengthening family ties through the generations—doing the work necessary to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6).
It’s difficult to love someone you don’t know, so a significant aspect of family history work is sharing and preserving family stories.
“Talking to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles to find out more about their parents and grandparents gives you the foundation you need to start digging into genealogical records,” says Crista Cowan, corporate genealogist at Ancestry.com. “There are other benefits to interviewing family members as well—studies have shown that children who grow up hearing family stories do better academically, socially and emotionally.”
But interviewing family members can be a daunting task, especially if you don’t know where to start. Here are five questions Cowan suggests every family should ask their grandparents.
1. How did you meet your spouse?
A marriage certificate tells the date and place of a marriage, but it doesn’t say anything about the romance.
“Capture the stories,” Cowan says. “The stories are the golden pieces of information that you will never find on a genealogical record. You can always order a copy of a birth or marriage certificate to get the details about dates and places.”
Cowan says to instead ask questions that only the person you’re interviewing can answer. How did they meet their spouse? When did they fall in love? How did they choose the wedding date? How did they feel when they found out their first child was coming? How did they decide where to live? What did they learn from each other? The answers to these questions will create a more complete picture of your grandparents’ marriage and, in turn, a more complete picture of your family.
2. What was life like when you were a child?
It’s not just world events that have changed over the last few decades. Ask your grandparents what life was like from day to day during their childhood and teen years. What did they do for entertainment? What did their parents do for a living? Is there still a need for that kind of job today? Where did they like to travel?
While you ask these questions, Cowan says, it’s a good idea to pull out old family photo albums and ask questions about what you find. What does Grandma remember about the day a certain photo was taken? Why isn’t Uncle John in the family photo that year? What did Grandma make for Thanksgiving dinner? Is this the car your family owned when you learned to drive? Looking at photos and asking these questions, Cowan says, is one of her favorite interview techniques.
“Show Grandpa a copy of the 1940 census with him as a young boy,” Cowan says. “Show him the address and ask if he remembers living in that house—maybe even look it up on the Internet and see if the house still stands. Ask about the neighbors. Check the record to see if children his age lived on the same street. Does he remember them? Did he go to school with them? What was his school experience like?”
Asking these types of questions helps families better understand the records and photographs they have on hand.
3. How did world events affect your family?
As older generations pass away, so do many memories of great moments in history. You can learn about the past from history books, but you can only learn how world events affected your family from the people who were there.
Ask Grandma what it was like to learn she was pregnant just after her husband was shipped overseas to fight in the war. Ask what she was doing when she learned John F. Kennedy had been shot. Talk to her about Vietnam, Watergate and The Beatles. Seeing these things through family members’ eyes will strengthen familial bonds and increase understanding of who your family members are.
“There is something special about listening to first-hand accounts of events that are quickly becoming history—World War II, the Great Depression, one-room schoolhouses, families gathered around the radio for fireside chats,” Cowan says. “Listen to the stories. Record them, using audio, video or by writing them down. And share them.”
4. What can you tell me about the deaths of family members?
Difficult questions are important to ask, too. If you and the person you’re interviewing are both comfortable with it, talk about some of the difficult experiences of life. Find out how family members died and identify any known illnesses that are prevalent in your family. These questions can lead to other important conversations, like how living family members can stay healthy and make positive changes.
“Interviews can provide a venue to learn about patterns of behavior in an attempt to understand your ancestors and help break negative cycles in families,” Cowan says. “If you are comfortable enough with the person you are interviewing, you can ask simple personal questions. From there you can move into questions about more difficult subjects—addiction, abuse, mental illness and so on.”
But these topics should only be addressed if the time is right and if you give the topics the sensitivity and respect they deserve.
“If you bring these topics up, be prepared for strong emotions—both negative and positive—in both yourself and the interviewee,” Cowan says. “Be very sensitive to the fact that the interviewee may not be prepared to talk about some of these things. Respect their boundaries. If they ask you not to record this information or share it with other family members, respect that as well.”
5. What do you know about your family’s religious background?
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints typically consider their religion as deeply rooted in their identity. Therefore, learning how their family came to be members of the Church is usually important to them.
However, some people consider religion an incredibly personal topic. If that’s the case, start with simple questions about your family’s religious background and slowly bring it around to more specific questions.
“Start conversations about this topic by asking Grandma what she knows about the religion of her ancestors,” Cowan says. “Let’s say her grandparents were from Italy. Were they Catholic? Does she remember going to Church with them? Did they pray at meal times? Let’s say Grandma is now LDS. Who in the family left the Catholic faith and decided to join the Mormon Church? What prompted that change?”
These questions will help family members learn more about their ancestors and, by association, more about themselves as well.