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20 August 2014

Get the Fragile Stuff

We have mentioned it before...but it is worth repeating.

Have you accessed and utilized the most fragile sources of genealogical information there are? Human memories are the most fragile of sources and often the ones most likely to contain information not written elsewhere.

Ask those questions before it is too late.


  1. I have tried but the family does not like to talk. It has been that way for years. Do you have a secret to make them talk?

    1. I do not know how you have approached this before, but maybe try asking about a specific memory like What happened the night the floods came? or What do you remember about the moon landing? If you are asking for specific information they may feel like they do not know all the information and are afraid of giving any. When I started I asked my mother about her grandparents she did not remember when they did and would not give any more info because she did not know the answer.. So what I did was ask where they alive when WW II ended? and continued asking questions like this and was able to pin down a 5 year span for their death. It also opened up the opportunity for her to add memories about them

  2. Before you ask questions, spend time focusing on who you want to talk to and what questions you want answered.

    List every one you want to talk to and what information they might have. Then decide who has to be asked first because:

    · they are the oldest and/or frail
    · they are the matriarch/ patriarch (or think they are) and would be upset not to be asked first and might cause a problem later on.
    · most likely to have good info
    · live closest to you, this is important because most older (70s and up ) people like to talk face to face. Even talking on the phone for more than 30 min. is hard for some. So I have to write to some relatives who are too far to visit. But I do get information. The letters are dictated, and may not be exactly what I asked about, but every little bit helps.

    Research before hand to have something neutral to talk about:

    If they lived in a small town anywhere in the US during the 30s to the 80s you should google their names in their old local newspapers to get any news about them that you can. Print out a few to show them. Use this to start a conversation and jog some memories. If you can’t find their names at all, find something about the town that happened when they were living their. Big fire. New church. New school. Polio scare. WWII.

    If you want information about anyone who immigrated, research their country during the time period that the ancestors came over and what the major reasons were for immigration during the period of their country’s existence. This way you have some general knowledge of your own to add to the mix and something to talk about to help prompt memories.

    When you are talking to them:

    If the conversation wanders, let it. Let them talk about what they want and don’t interrupt. Even if you’ve heard the story a dozen times. (And especially if you are getting a totally different version.)

    It’s natural for people to enjoy a call or letter or the extra attention of a visit. Remember that people want to feel like you are talking to them because you want to spend the time with them and not because you are only after information.

    Ask your questions and if they can’t think of the the answers, let it go. It may take a while and a few more gentle prompts for them to remember or decide to talk to you. It may take more than one or two visits or phone calls or letters.

    If you are visiting, and especially if you are talking to them on the phone, remember to take your time, rephrase questions and speak slowly and clearly.

    Take notes on everything. When I visit, I usually say I need to take notes because I forget everything. But if they seem nervous don’t, and wait for a chance to write everything down.

    Have a good small non intimidating camera charged up and ready to go. You may get a snap of a document, letter, or memento that you never will see again. I have used my iphone several times to get portraits on a wall and always with permission. Some people don’t like things moved or touched. And (with permission) take a few of the person you are visiting and their favorite cat, dog, garden or hobby. It will only add to your store of information and certainly make them happy.


    They do not like one or more of the relatives you want to ask about. Give in and talk about other things or people and events they will talk about. Let them proceed at their own pace.

    Was WW ll/ Korea/Vietnam something they don’t want to talk about?
    Was there abuse or divorce?

    I have relatives that talk to me because I have promised never to print anything they have told me. Sometimes it’s best. And I have stories that will be told to my children about their g and gg grands that will in time (I hope) be funny-sad or touching and not so - ‘why are all of our relatives crazy?’ - sounding.

    Please feel free to use any or all of this as a start to organize what you want to do and how to think about accomplishing your goals. And good luck!