Roller-Skating Grandma

by | Oct. 23, 2003


For fun, Grandma used to hitch rides with the milkman to the city, and once, she roller-skated from Logan to Provo. I always knew my Grandma had stories to tell, but when I finally sat down and asked about her life, I learned things I'd never through to ask.

We all have living relatives with stories that should be recorded for future generations. Ranging from the remarkable to the simple and humorous, every person has valuable life lessons to share. Church members have been encouraged to learn about their deceased ancestors, but all too often we neglect gathering information about our living relatives.

For years I wanted to record a brief history of my 81-year-old grandma, whom we affectionately called "Munner." Munner is one of my heroes and the backbone of a wonderful family: six daughters who are as different as can be, yet love each other and stay close despite the miles between them.

When I was about to have my first child I finally found the motivation to ask Munner about her life, her background, and how she managed to raise a good family. I soon learned that gathering a life story takes a lot of work, but more importantly, I learned how crucial it is to have this information. It's her stories and her experiences that will keep her alive for my children and my grandchildren. Here are a few things the experience taught me.

Talk Face-To-Face

Gathering Munner's story started with a trip to Pocatello, Idaho. My sister and I drove up for a weekend of eating, talking and more eating. Whenever possible, interviewing a relative in person yields far greater results than interviewing over the phone.

It was hard to make my energetic grandmother sit down long enough to ask her questions about her life. While we were at her house, we made a baby blanket, cooked meals (she cooked- we ate), and toured her new home. When we were finally able to make her stop, I knew I had to make the time count. We stayed for the weekend, and I still wasn't able to gather all the information that I needed.

Have a Game Plan

Fortunately, I enjoy the mundane tasks of making lists and planning ahead. That may not sound exciting, but when you're tackling a big project, having a game plan is essential. Before traveling to Idaho, I made a list of 30 questions ranging from, "Tell me about your parents," to "What does being a grandmother mean to you?"

I skipped some of the questions I'd listed, and asked many I hadn't. You don't need to stick to your list. Let the conversation take you where it will. Without the list, however, I surely would've gotten sidetracked. The list made sure I remembered to ask some of the more important questions.

Focus on Experience

Birth dates, marriage dates, etc. are important, but that's not what will keep his or her memory alive. While you have your relative's time and attention, focus on experiences that show his or her personality.

After Munner had a few children, she decided to take a college class. The professor said something that she didn't agree with, so she debated with him and told him he was wrong. The professor asked how she, a little old housewife, had the nerve to disagree with a college professor. She told him she had a right to say what she believed, and she didn't believe what he was saying. The same professor said he didn't give 'A's' to students because they never deserved them. She got an 'A' in the class.

Munner shared her experiences as a machinist during World War II, of raising six daughters, and of her childhood dream to be a criminologist. Combined, these stories paint a true picture of my grandmother.

Choose A Theme

A life history can be a collection of stories, or a chronological timeline of experiences. It can be written for adults or for children. It can be philosophical or funny. It should be written in a way that reflects our relative's personality. Munner is a great storyteller, so my theme was a collection of stories. If you don't choose a theme, you may become overwhelmed.

There's no way to completely gather the story of a person's life, but a theme can narrow your focus. To choose a theme, ask your relative what he or she is most comfortable with, then plan your questions around that theme. A theme makes the history more focused and interesting to read.

Look at Pictures Or Journals

If your relative permits, search his or her photo albums and journals for inspiration. It's amazing how many questions can be sparked by a collection of pictures. Your relative may even want to select a few especially significant journal entries, like the wedding day or details about when children were born. Emotions may be difficult to remember, but a journal provides these details. Munner's entries often included a description of the weather. She finds it interesting to look back and chart the weather patterns. Pictures and journal entries can trigger great conversations.

Don't Put It Off

There's no time like the present to record family member's history. To make the project more fun and manageable, divide it into a series of smaller projects.

Take a tape recorder with you when visiting relatives. Use it to capture a quick story. Soon you'll see their history unfold. I wanted my son Miles to know his great grandma. Now he'll be able to listen to her voice on tape and hear her laughter. He'll also hear her testimony and her desire for her family to be happy. Recording a living history is a wonderful way to bless your posterity. It answers those questions you always wished you'd asked.
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