Have you ever asked a relative about your family history? The experience is like lifting the handle on an old-fashioned water pump. You never know what’s going to come out. Maybe nothing: maybe the pump doesn’t work anymore or its source has run dry. Or you may prompt a sudden torrent that soaks your shoes and disappears into the ground before you can catch it. You may luck into a perfect stream of water—then find it too muddy to use.
Preparing for a family history interview is like preparing to collect water from that old pump. You may have to “prime the pump” before any information spouts forth. You need to be prepared to catch a burst of names or stories, and you may need to filter a bit before the content is meaningful.
Prime the pump
I find old-fashioned water pumps at parks and beaches, where they are used infrequently or only seasonally. To get the water flowing, I pump the handle several times. I listen for a gurgle in the pipe below and feel for a tell-tale resistance in the pumping rhythm before I expect results.
When we ask our relatives to remember names, dates, and stories, we are asking them to dig deep into memories they may not often access. Ease them into the process and wait patiently for them to recall things. Ask them to think about topics in advance: “When I see you this Christmas, will you please share some of your memories of Christmases past?”
My favorite “pump-priming” technique is a casual conversation. I ask about their lives in general: career, education, family. I let them lead the discussion and note whom and what they love to talk about—and which topics they avoid. I may ask whether they know much about their parents or grandparents. A conversation likes this serves several purposes beyond priming their memory pump. Showing sincere interest builds trust and rapport. Gathering facts helps me prepare meaningful interview questions. Knowing their pet topics and any emotional boundaries allows me to steer future conversations appropriately.
Catch the water
With some relatives, you never get beyond the pump-priming phase of a family history interview. Maybe they show no interest, have lost most of their memories, or simply aren’t available for an in-depth interview. They’ve gone dry. But when you can have a formal interview, have your bucket ready.
I mean this in two ways. First, be prepared. Do your homework with facts you already know. If your aunt worked in a factory, Google the name of the town and factory to see what you can learn about it (add the search term “history” if you get too many hits). Well-informed questions show you care and will elicit more meaningful answers. Prepare a list of open-ended questions (not ones that can be answered “yes” or “no”).
Second, record the conversation. Use a digital recorder if you can (don’t forget that many digital cameras take video), but don’t put off an interview for lack of current technology. Use a tape recorder or type or hand-write their answers. If a recorder makes you nervous, practice with it. If a recorder makes a relative nervous, compromise: put it out of sight, or just record audio instead of video. Promise to turn it off upon request. Never record without permission.
Purify the water
Just like groundwater, memories can be muddy when they first surface. They may be too vague to be meaningful: “my childhood was good.” They may be colored by emotions: “I don’t want to talk about my father.” They may wander off-topic before they fully answer a question.
Follow-up questions work like water purification. They clarify the facts and their significance. Use questions that capture who, what, when, where, why, and how. “So your childhood was good. Who made it special?” Say, “Tell me more.” Ask what he thought or felt. Sometimes your best response is a patient silence and an encouraging nod, to give someone time to reflect, process, and put things into words. If someone has really strong emotions, respect their right to them. After a pause, indicate your willingness to listen if they’d like to talk, or the choice to change the subject.
Your relative may go off-topic. Never be impatient; a family history interview is not the Inquisition. Listen for a while to see if this new topic is fruitful. If not, nudge her one direction or another. “You started to talk about the factory and then we got onto your mom’s illness. I am interested in learning more about both. Which can we talk about?”
By the end of the conversation, the hope is that your bucket will be full, so to speak, of clear, meaningful memories. All the patient pump-priming will be worth it. And you’ll likely find yourself returning to the wellspring of family memory again and again.
Sunny McClellan Morton is a Latter-day Saint heritage writer and author of My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories. Learn more about her at sunnymorton.com.