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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tuesday's Tip - 50 Questions You Can Ask The Older Generation In Your Family

Almost every genealogy buff I have ever talked to wishes they had asked their grandparents some question. One of my Dad's cousins was as deeply into genealogy as I am but back in the pencil, notebook and filing cabinet days. I heard him say, "If I would have just asked my grandfather who his grandparents were while he was still living!" You see, he couldn't find proof of which George Huneycutt was his great great grandfather. I happened to ask my mother-in-law, the youngest of 3 daughters, how her older sister met her husband and, believe it or not, no one remembers and they are both dead now. Even their children don't seem to remember.

Everyone enjoys attention and knowing someone finds their stories, wisdom and family knowledge interesting. So don't be afraid to ask questions. On the other hand, be attentive to when they get tired of all the questions. They may not can answer all your questions in one sitting. I try to ask my parents questions whenever we go somewhere and I jot down notes or take a digital recorder along then let the conversation flow naturally so it doesn't wear them out or get irritating.

And it's not just your grandparents but you can ask questions of your great aunts and great uncles, cousins, etc. Some will know different and new stories that you never heard before.


Here are some questions to ask the older generation:


  1. Who were their ancestors (parents, grandparents, great grandparents)? What were their full names? Do they know their dates of birth and death, date they got married?
  2. When and where were they born? Were they born in a hospital, at home?
  3. Who were their siblings? Who did they marry?
  4. How did they meet their spouse?
  5. What did they do on dates?
  6. How did they pop the question? Where were they? Did they get an engagement ring? If so, where did they get it and what is the story behind it?
  7. When and where did they get married? Was there a formal wedding? Who was in it? Was it an elopement? 
  8. What school did they go to? How far did they get in school? (Today, we assume most everyone at least got a high school education but graduating from high school was far from normal from the 1940's and back further. In the 1940's U.S. Census we are finding that most adults rarely got passed the 7th grade. If they continued after, it meant that education was a top priority in their family.) Where did they graduate? Who were their favorite teachers and why? What were their favorite subjects? If they got a college degree or graduate degree, what were their majors? Did they join any clubs, fraternities or sororities? What were the extra curricular activities they may have participated in? Sports?
  9. Did they take school lunches? What were school lunches like for them? Did the working members in their family take their own lunches? What was normal for them to take?
  10. What was their first job and where? How did they get that job? What did the job entail?
  11. What was their first car? (Almost everyone has a story about their first vehicle!)
  12. What is the story behind the births of their children? (For instance, my Mom miscarried their first child so when she got immediately pregnant with me, they were concerned about being able to carry full term so they rented a home within a mile of the hospital "just in case". My grandmother came to stay with her until after I was born too and that was a long trip for her to make.)
  13. Why did they choose the names of their children? Is there a story behind it? Is there a naming tradition in the family? (Example, they named Flora after her great grandmother who died young.)
  14. What was a typical meal like growing up? (My Grandma made a full breakfast every single morning. She got up and fired up the kitchen wood stove and made eggs, bacon/country ham/sausage, grits, red eye gravy, biscuits, coffee and juice. Lunch may be a bologna sandwich or cold leftover biscuit with butter and jelly but breakfast was the full spread!)
  15. What was their living arrangements growing up? Did they have their own room, share with siblings, did they share a bed, did they sleep in an attic room, etc.
  16. What did their parents do during the day? Did Mom work at the cotton mill or was she a stay at home mom and housewife? If she stayed at home, what were her normal chores and routines? What did Dad do when he was at home after work?
  17. Did they, their parents or grandparents have hobbies? What were they? Fishing, hunting, raising prize chickens, possum hunting, making prize winning pies, quilting, sewing, making fishing lures, collecting recipes, etc? A lot of what you may have thought of as work and chores were actual interests and things they took pride in. For instance, you may not think of possum hunting as a "hobby" but my Great Grandfather had a dog he was very proud of for his possum treeing ability and how he captured the possum, fed him up on sweet potatoes, before killing him. He also loved fishing despite only have a cane pole. They had interests but it may not be like what we think of as hobbies today. 
  18. Did they like sports? Did they like watching or playing a particular sport? Who was their favorite sports figure? If they went to games, what did they pay to get in or what did they buy for food and drink?
  19. How did they celebrate the holidays? What was Christmas like for them? What Christmas presents do they remember? How did they celebrate Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Halloween, etc?
  20. Did they ever go on vacations? If so, where? What stood out? (My mother remembers the first time they went to the beach. Her father was a Baptist minister so they got a cottage at Caswell Beach.)
  21. What made them the proudest of their parents? What made them the proudest of their children? Of their grandchildren?
  22. What characteristics of their parents do they see in themselves and their children? Do they have the Smith nose, the Jones' eyes, the Doe's frugality the Whosit's mechanical abilities?
  23. What church did they attend? Any church offices they held? How important was the church to the family and their community? When and where were they baptized? 
  24. Is there any family information about the family surname? Do they have any idea what the surname means or how it was otherwise spelled? For instance, O'Connor became Conner or Coan became Cohen.
  25. What accomplishments are they most proud of? What are things they would have liked to do (bucket list)?
  26. What are their earliest memories?
  27. What political affiliation did they, their parents and grandparents follow? And why? (My grandparents were adults during the Great Depression and were firm Democrats forever afterwards because of FDR and how he led them out of the Great Depression.) Were they involved in politics such as volunteering or running for office?
  28. Are there any special heirlooms in the family such as family Bibles, quilts, pocket watches, china, silver, box of recipes, gun, piece of furniture, etc? What stories are behind the heirlooms?
  29. Was there any famous, or infamous, people in their family? What are the stories behind these famous (or infamous) family members? Was Aunt Joanne a Miss SC in 1937? Was Uncle John a member of the Supreme Court? Was their brother elected as Magistrate? Did Cousin Jim own a successful butcher shop in town? Did Grandmother Lily win the national prize for her BBQ in a BBQ competition? Did Grandpa Steven act in the 1949 movie "The ABC Movie"? Did great great Aunt Elma poison her husband and spend her life in prison? etc.
  30. Were they ever in the local newspaper? For what? (In small towns, some people were in the local newspaper all the time for visiting someone outside of town, 4H projects, graduating from high school, etc. In larger towns and cities, they may never have been in the local newspaper unless it was for a letter to the editor.)
  31. What medical problems seem to run in the family? Does cancer or heart disease or depression or insanity or strokes run in the family? Does easy pregnancies or long life or strong backs run in the family? It can be good or bad.
  32. What country did they or their ancestors come from? Are there memories from the "old country"?
  33. Did they live near other family members? Who? Where did they live? (My Dad's grandfather lived next door to my Dad and his family while he was growing up. Great Grandpa Huneycutt and his son built Great Grandpa's house and shop. He was a blacksmith.)
  34. Do they remember where they actually lived such as the street address? What was their house like? Did it have plumbing, indoor bathrooms? How big was the kitchen? How many bathrooms and bedrooms? What was the layout? (Believe me, they can sketch a house they lived in.) Are the houses still there? My Mom has taken me to a mill town where my great grandparents lived before Great Grandpa Reese died and she pointed out the house they lived in when he died. My Dad's parents lived on their farm for almost their entire marriage. But my Mom's father was a Baptist minister and they moved all over the place. I like to keep the street address AND the GPS coordinates. Because sometimes the house is torn down, replaced or the street numbers change. Same for where they worked, went to school and went to church.
  35. What was their favorite toy? Game? Are there any stories about their toys or the games they played?
  36. Did they have pets? What were they? What were their names? What were the stories about their pets?
  37. What skills did they learn from their parents and grandparents? Did they learn how to kill and dress their beef, rabbits, chickens? Did they learn how to iron from their mother? Did they learn how to sew from Grandma? Did they learn how to hunt from Grandpa?
  38. Do they have any special memories for historic moments? Such as, my mother-in-law was a child when Franklin D. Roosevelt died and she remembers when the train carrying his body went through our town. Crowds were along the railroad to show respect. Do they remember what they were doing when JFK was assassinated or when WWII was over or when they saw their first airplane?
  39. What was and is their favorite food? Is there a special recipe?
  40. What is their favorite color(s)? Why? Does it bring memories? For instance they love yellow because their mother painted their bedroom yellow when they were 10 years old.
  41. What was the fashion and fashion trends when they were young? Bell bottoms? Oxford shoes? Paper collars? Fox fur stoles with the head intact (icky)?
  42. What were their concerns or hopes for the future? Were they worried about being drafted and going to Vietnam? Were they worried about the civil rights movement? Were they excited when Eisenhower became president? Did the Great Depression affect them and their family? Did they think something was going to usher in a utopia (such as communism, socialism, welfare, free education...)? Don't be judgmental, just let them tell you what they were thinking and why? Right or wrong, they had feelings and thoughts at the time and reasons for why they felt that way. 
  43. Was anyone in the family published? Maybe a book, a poem or book of poetry, a thesis, a short story in a magazine?
  44. What things about their spouse did they admire? Were, or are, there things about their spouse that could drive them crazy?
  45. How did they and their family celebrate birthdays? Maybe they didn't do anything, as though birthdays weren't a big deal. Or maybe there were traditions and ways their family always celebrated. Did they have birthday parties? Did they get birthday gifts? Did they have birthday cakes?
  46. How did they play? Outside, inside? Was it imaginary games of army, cops and robbers, cowboys and indians? Was it with Barbies? Was it sports games like sandlot baseball, dodgeball, skating? Did they play house? Board games? Did they play with other friends or siblings? How competitive were they in their play?
  47. Who were their "best friends"? What happened to them?
  48. How did they end up working where they worked? Whether it was as a farmer, a cotton mill worker, a career in law, a doctor, a policeman, etc Did they follow in their family's footsteps? What funneled them to where they ended up?
  49. Do they have a saying that they use all the time or words to live by? Do they remember such sayings from their parents or grandparents? Such as "Don't throw your pearls before swine" or "Why buy the cow if the milk is free?" or "Judge not less thou also be judged".
  50. Were there any family arguments, feuds, grudges? What was the story behind these feuds? Did they ever make up or has it been carried down? Are they still not speaking to Uncle Billy because he stole his parent's money when they died?

1 comment:

Nancy Vest said...

Love it! I reposted it on my blog. http://nancyhvest.com/what-to-ask-the-older-generation/

Nancy Vest

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