Just Don’t Call It An ‘Interview’

I really, really would have loved to talk for hours about genealogy questions with my mother, but she wasn’t one to go on and on about herself. Mind you, she told all of us lots of little anecdotes over the years. But try to sit my mom down for a Genealogy Interview, and she not only froze, she got irritable.

What do you need to go into all that for?

It wasn’t such a big deal.

I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. Is it really so important?

Was she hiding dark, dreadful secrets? That’s the obvious suspicion, but no, I don’t think so. (Sorry, guys.)

What I think is, my mom came from a generation that didn’t like talking about itself.  Deep personal revelations smacked of showing off, pulling a Sarah Bernhardt. Memoirs were for generals and former First Ladies, not for middle-aged suburbanites musing over their childhood wrongs.

Yes, I probably made a mistake by trying to sit my mom down armed with a notebook, a pen and an expectant look. But I did succeed with one interview, which I’ll describe now in the hopes that someone else might benefit from the method.

I was on a visit back east from Chicago, where I was living at the time. I really wanted to do some sort of genealogy interview with Mom, and time was limited. There was no time for the usual awww-pleaaassee-Mom, tell me about your dad stuff, and I knew it wouldn’t work anyway.

So I suggested we meet over her strongbox of family papers. Not to talk about her, oh dear me, no. I just wanted to ask her about the papers in the box. And all of a sudden, we were talking.

Oh, look! Here’s Grandpa’s citizenship papers. Let’s see, when did he become a citizen —  Oh, you must have been pretty little then. But you remember him going in for the English lessons? Where’d he go?

Something similar happened with Grandma’s immigration affadavit, which was filled out by a cousin of my mother’s. I have a page’s worth of notes on my mother’s comments about the affadavit, including a pointed assessment about the alleged value of my cousin’s house (“It wasn’t worth THAT much! Typical.”).

It was the only classic genealogy interview I ever had with my mother, and it worked because we weren’t talking about her, just about some of her papers.

For others with reticent relatives, it might be worth a try. What’s to lose?


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