(+) Questions to Ask Your Elders

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

For every genealogist who is completely content with the results of their efforts, I wonder how many more are nagged by questions they wish they had asked family members when they had the chance. We scour the vital records, consult the census reports, and probe the probate for clues about those lost to us. If you’re lucky enough to have old diaries or letters, you try to piece together their lives to discover what they really thought and felt. We spend hour after hour reconstructing our ancestors’ lives. However, if you have the ultimate good fortune to have older relatives still among you, think of the priceless memories they may have to share today!

“If only I had asked her before she died.” How many of us have uttered those words? I know that I have, and I suspect that you have, too. The greatest resource in family history is carried within the memories of our older relatives. Not only are names and dates remembered, but so are the many wonderful stories that were never recorded elsewhere. When someone dies, that information is lost forever.

You need to take steps now to record information that is available today but otherwise will be lost in coming years. In short, you need to capture the family stories and trivia that are known only to your older relatives. The time to do that is now! Any delay increases the risk of valuable information being lost forever.

You cannot go back and recapture information that has been lost. However, you can record available information today, before it is lost forever. Your efforts could preserve wonderful family stories, along with specific facts, for the benefit of many future generations. Not only should you interview your parents, if they are still living, but also aunts, uncles, and older cousins. In many cases, even interviewing unrelated individuals who were former neighbors or friends of your family can often uncover interesting stories about your family members. For instance, I had a great experience interviewing a 92-year-old lady who once was the next door neighbor of my great-grandfather for several years. She told me stories that probably were not known to my relatives.

You will want to record the information given. You can write the information as it is being given to you, but I would suggest that you literally “record the information given.” A small tape recorder or digital voice recorder is a great investment. Recording speeds up the interview process and encourages the interviewee to keep talking. You never need to interrupt by saying, “Wait while I write that down…” You can also replay segments over and over later as you are transcribing the information. Finally, replaying an audio recording some years after someone’s death can be a gratifying experience that is difficult to describe.

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