My Mom and Dad are now in their mid 80’s and with each day that goes by I feel more keenly the need to capture their history and insights about life for myself, my children, and beyond. I am no family history expert, but I do know that I could sit for hours and listen to my parents tell stories about the “good ol’ days.” Lately I’ve been thinking it’s time to actually do something about preserving these memories and life lessons. I’ve been doing some research into it and realized that in this digital day and age it’s never been easier to accomplish this.
In the past, if you wanted to conduct a personal history interview, and record it for posterity, it involved a lot of klunky and complicated equipment. Today all you need is a smartphone and access to some storage (in the cloud or on a hard drive.) You might also need a little guidance, but a quick internet search will provide you with endless inspiration for how to do a “life interview” of a loved one.
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Just think how happy it would make your mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, etc. to have someone really listen to them while they take a trip down memory lane. The best gift you can give someone, especially the elderly, is to listen to them. When you take the time to listen, you are telling that person that what they’ve done, and the things they care about are important.
Anyone can create a life story for themselves or a loved one. It’s as simple as setting aside some time and really listening.
Here are a few tips for a successful life story interview and a list of questions to get you started:
–Prepare your questions in advance.
–Set aside a quiet time and place free from interruptions and test your equipment before starting.
–Ask open-ended questions like: Tell me about… Describe… What was it like when… In what ways…. Why…. and How…
–Start with easy, friendly questions and work your way up to more difficult or sensitive questions.
–Listen carefully to what the person says; don’t interrupt or correct. Maintain eye contact and show interest by leaning forward and nodding.
–Photos, mementos, or other visual aids are great memory-joggers, have some ready if necessary.
–Don’t try to force any subject they are uncomfortable discussing. If the person doesn’t want to talk about something, just go to the next question.
–As you listen to answers, other questions will come to mind. Asking follow-up questions will help you get more information.
–An interview shouldn’t last more than about an hour. People do best when they’re not tired. You can always do another interview.
–Organize life stories into chapters. Most people love to share stories from their lives but the challenge is to capture the stories in a structured, logical way. GreatLifeStories.com organizes life stories into 12 chapters that are logical and chronological and are a great way to structure your interview.
Here are some suggested questions following the “12 Chapters” format:
CHAPTER 1: In the Beginning
- What were your parents and grandparents full names, dates of birth, places of birth.
- What were the occupations of your parents?
- How many children were in your family? Where were you in the lineup?
- Generally speaking, what was your childhood like?
- What one or two stories do you remember most clearly about your childhood?
- Are there any particularly happy, funny, sad or instructive lessons you learned while growing up?
CHAPTER 2: In Your Neighborhood
- What was it like where you grew up?
- Describe your most important friendships
- Where and how did “news of your neighborhood” usually flow?
CHAPTER 3: School Days
- What are your earliest school day memories?
- Are there any teachers or subjects you particularly liked or disliked?
- What did you learn in those first years of school that you would like to pass along to the next generation?
- Were you involved in sports, music, drama, or other extra-curricular activities?
CHAPTER 4: Off to Work
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- What was your first job, and how did you get it?
- What was your first boss like? What did you learn from him or her?
- Did you leave? Quit? Get promoted? Get fired?
- Were you ever out of work for a long time? If so, how did you handle it?
CHAPTER 5: Romance & Marriage
- What do you recall about your first date?
- How did you know you were really in love?
- Tell me how you “popped the question,” or how it was popped to you.
- Tell me about your wedding ceremony. What year? Where? How many attended?
- Tell me about starting your family.
CHAPTER 6: Leisure and Travel
- What were the most memorable family vacations or trips you can recall?
- What leisure time activities were you involved with?
- What are your greatest accomplishments in this field?
CHAPTER 7: Religion
- What was your family’s religious affiliation?
- Where did you go to church?
- What religious ceremonies did you take part in?
- What role do your beliefs play in your life today?
- What would you tell your children about your faith?
CHAPTER 8: War & Peace
- Were you a volunteer, drafted?
- If you didn’t serve, what do you recall about being on the home front during the war?
- What key moments do you recall about your service?
- What would you tell today’s young soldiers, sailors and fliers?
CHAPTER 9: Triumph and Tragedy
- What were the most joyous, fulfilling times of your life?
- Any sad, tragic or difficult times you’d care to share such as losing a loved one, a job, or something you cared about?
- What lifelong lessons did you learn from these tough times? Joyous times?
- Were there any moments you recall as true breakthroughs in any area of your life?
- If you could do one thing differently in your life, what would that be?
CHAPTER 10: Words of Wisdom
- What have you learned over your lifetime that you’d like to share with the younger generation?
- Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice for living?
- If they respond with platitudes like “honesty is the best policy,” be sure to ask how they learned that life lesson.
CHAPTER 11: Fun and Games
- What were your family’s favorite jokes or pranks?
- Who is, or was, the family comedian?
- What’s the funniest family story you remember?
CHAPTER 12: Gratitude
- What are you most grateful for in your life?
- How have you taught your children to be grateful?
- Are there items or places that mark special gratitude for you? What are they? What are their stories?
When concluding your interview ask, “Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you would like to talk about?” You might be surprised at the answers! :-)
Knowing your family’s story and where you came from is a treasure. If you make a point of recording and/or writing down your family story it is something that will be cherished for generations.