After my father died, my sister called up our oldest surviving relative, my great aunt Bebe who lives in Florida, and they ended up having several conversations. The things she told us about our family have been delightful (and occasionally insane).
We knew, for instance, that my mother was pregnant when my parents got married, but here’s a part of the story we never heard:
Later he explains that she is pregnant and they had gotten married by a justice of the peace. But when my mother’s parents found out, they put together a fancy wedding with a caterer and a rabbi; so they kept the justice of the peace a secret.
We are not actually sure if this story is true! We talked it over and the details don’t quite make sense. But my Aunt Bebe loves a good story, and this is a pretty good story.
This Thanksgiving, we’re regretfully foregoing a family gathering because, as much as we love our relatives, we don’t want to host a superspreader event — and spending time indoors, with masks off, with people you don’t already live with, seems to be ideal conditions for spreading the virus, sometimes with deadly consequences for people who weren’t even there.
If you’re in the same boat and you can’t spend time with family in person, why not take the opportunity to interview them by phone or video? Yes, even the people you think you already know well. They probably have some stories you’ve never heard before.
I’ve written about this before — how I did some interviews with my father, but not as much as I would have liked, and how I missed my chance to interview my mother. We spent countless hours together, but there are some things I never thought to ask until it was too late.
With a planned interview, you may have a deeper conversation than if everyone were sitting in the same room, but just eating pie and chatting; and the time and attention could be a real boon to older relatives who’ve been especially isolated. Taking time to listen intently to someone’s memories is a wonderful way to show love, and it may very well end up being fascinating for you.
Consider recording the conversation so you can save it for posterity (with the person’s permission, of course!). Here’s how to record a Zoom conversation; an iPhone conversation; an Android conversation; a Facebook video chat.
Here are some questions you can ask, to get things started. And it’s okay if they wander and answer questions you didn’t ask!
What’s the earliest memory you have?
When you were little, what was your favorite place to go or thing to do? What was your favorite food? What was your least favorite food?
Who were your friend when you were growing up? What did you do together?
What do you remember about your parents from your childhood? What did they do for work? Did you get along with them? What did they do in their spare time?
What was your first job? What did you do with the money you earned?
Who was your favorite teacher? Who was your least favorite?
Who did you admire when you were growing up? Did that change?
What (or who) were you afraid of when you were growing up? Did that change?
What’s the first movie you remember seeing?
How did you meet your first girlfriend/boyfriend? How did you meet the person you eventually married?
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did things work out as you expected?
Do you think kids today have things better or worse than you did?
If you have kids, ask them for question ideas, too. They will probably be curious about things that didn’t occur to you.
The virus is taking so much away from us, but this could be a chance to gain something really precious. If you do it, tell me how it goes!
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