Interviewing Family At Thanksgiving: What Happened Last Year & This Year’s Plans (Updated)

Thanksgiving Table Setting What can you do to interview family and collect histories and memories of elders and relatives when you get together with family at Thanksgiving or for the National Day of Listening?
I wrote about this last year, with a collection of ideas I culled from the internets. I adapted one of those for our family gathering last year. I’ll describe what we did, what I learned, how this year will be different, and brainstorm some variations on a theme.

I started with Beth Lamie’s idea, Draw From A Hat. Put a set of questions in a hat and draw one out and ask. Repeat. That was the inspiration: That, and “Get the kids involved.”

But of course, somebody has to think up the questions that get placed into the hat. I focused on this with my nieces—two girls, aged 9 (nearly 10) and 4. Let them be the ones to come up with questions for everyone.

What we did to prepare for Dinner Conversation

I arrived at their house, got them to step away from the computer and the Tee vee (sigh. yes. true.) with an aunt-ish scheme: Think of some questions to ask people at the dinner table. Instead of generic questions that would apply to anybody, I decided to get as specific as possible. What question do you want to ask your Dad? Your Mom? Grandma? Uncle J? Uncle T? Aunt Susan?

The buffet

Aunt Susan: Okay, girls, after dinner, let’s ask everyone questions about themselves and record the answers. Okay? Okay. So the first thing we do is think of questions to ask people. Can you think of questions to ask people?

Nearly 10: What kind of questions?

Aunt Susan: Well, there’s one question I’d like to ask your Mama (who is from Panama). And that is, What was her first Thanksgiving like? You’ve been having Thanksgivings all your life. It’s an American tradition. But your Mama didn’t grow up in America. So she probably remembers her first one because she had it as an adult.

Nearly 10: (eyes wide) Ooh!
(some dawning comprehension lit upon her face.)

Aunt Susan: So what questions would you like to ask?

Nearly 10: Oh, I could ask Dad about what inspired him to be a surfer!

Aunt Susan: Exactly! Good question. Let’s write it down. You want to write it, or shall I?

She did. Once she thought of a new question, Nearly 10 wrote it down in her notebook. Nearly 10 wrote them down.

Younger Sister (age 4), also came up with a couple of questions.

Younger Sister: I want to know what Mommy’s favorite plant is! (Their mother loves gardening)

I had a slight challenge right there.

Aunt Susan: Is there another way to ask that question about plants? “What is your favorite plant” will get a very short answer—the name of one plant. How about thinking of a question that’ll get a longer answer?

With a little coaching, she settled on: “How did you become a gardener?”

We went through the same process with her other question—“Did you play hide-and-go-seek?” (A question that asks for a YES or NO answer) became “What games did you play when you were a kid?”

Alternatively, I might have kept the original question and had them ask a follow-up question.

  • What is your favorite plant? What do you like about it? 
  • Did you play hide and go seek? Tell me a story about one time you played hide and go seek.

I pulled out a bunch of 3 x 5 cards. Nearly 10 wrote 1 question per card.

Some examples:

  • What was your first experience sailing?
  • What was it like when you first started surfing?
  • Why did you want to become an air force pilot?
  • What was your first project for Space?
  • What was it like when your first baby was born?
  • How did you become a gardener?
  • What was it like when you went to High School?


Once the questions were ready, it was time to get the equipment in place.

Recorder (with a built-in microphone): check!

Enough free space on the memory card: check! 
(a 4 gb card, I made sure that there was at least 2 gigabytes of free space. That would give us plenty—more than 3 hours recording time).

Headphones to monitor the recording quality: check!

New batteries for recorder: check!

Backup power, (first, the power adapter that plugs into an outlet and an extension cord to bring power right to where the recorder was located): check!

And… The stack of cards with the questions.

Everything was ready and in place.

plate. all things ready to go.

How it worked in practice

Thanksgiving conversation has distinct phases. The chatter of anticipation and “Go wash your hands, it’s ready, it’s ready” gave way to the round-robin “what I’m thankful for,” the blessing, the chit chat of taking of plates to the food line and the piling high thereof, the compliments uttered between initial bites, the shushed concentration of eating, the going back for seconds, and then finally, relaxed conversation.

Not too long into the relaxed conversation phase, I introduced our next activity. “Nearly 10 is going to ask you all questions and we’re going to record it.”

I powered up the recorder, and spoke an introduction. “It’s Thanksgiving 2010 and the Kitchens family is gathered here in Henderson, Nevada. Nearly 10 has some questions she’s going to ask and we’re recording what people say.”

Nearly 10 got her deck of cards with questions. She shuffled the cards. I said, for the benefit of those who could not see her,  “She’s shuffling the cards.”

She said, “It can’t be right without the shuffle.” The she chose one and said, “Grandma, tell about a time—one of your first times sailing a boat.”

The buffet, again That launched Grandma (my Mom) into a story that went well into five minutes. We grownups were amused by what she said; it was our childhood she was talking about. She painted a vivid picture of some heavy seas, and some cantaloupe getting loose and being tossed around in the slop, and of one that broke, with cantaloupe seeds all over the cabin of the boat. Nearly 10, who was primed to ask her next question, twitched with frustration. She sighed and rolled her eyes.

She spent all that time thinking up questions, and didn’t anticipate how long it would take to answer them. I hadn’t anticipated that I’d need to tell her to expect to wait a long time in between asking questions. Oops.

I told her, “The point of these questions is to get people telling the stories that they otherwise wouldn’t tell. It’s okay.”

The session continued for an hour. She asked some more questions (including Younger Sister’s question about gardening). When appropriate, I moved the position of the recorder so it would sit near the person talking. (I did that before they began talking, so any microphone-handling noise would not mask actual storytelling.)

The recorder picked up multiple simultaneous conversations around the table. This was not your sit down one-on-one type of recorded interview. The recording contains side conversations (some whispered, some out loud), background noise of table clearing and questions about the pot of whatever on the back burner with the flame on, interruptions, follow-up questions, and more. It’s a thing of beauty. An hour’s worth of question and answer, where each person had a chance to tell one story, and each of us heard and learned new things about people we’ve known for all our lives.

There was one guest to this gathering who was not a family member, per se. considered family. She was asked a question, and she answered, but that exchange was not recorded. We had the hear something about you in the moment, but it didn’t become part of the record.

Observations about this approach

  • Everyone is more open to participating because the activity is child-centered.
  • It took us out of our standard routine of things-we-talk-about-at-Thanksgiving.
  • Though the adult siblings have known one another all our lives, each of us heard something new about the other person.
  • Everyone gets involved in the process.
  • Kids think up ways to come up with questions.
  • Stories are edited to be G rated.
    My first thought in response to the question I was asked (What was it like when you first went to high school?) was not suitable for an under-10 audience. The first thing I thought of concerned an event that involved teenage experimentation with a mild, plant-based consciousness-altering substance. It would have been an interesting story to tell and to hear. But I didn’t want to go there with my nieces. I ended up talking about the second thing I thought of.

Lessons Learned: How I’d prepare differently.

Thinking on last year’s event (and listening to the recording), there are some things I would do differently.

  • Setting expectations for children.
    Even though, in the moment, I helped my niece in her moment of impatience, I think the whole thing would have gone a bit better if I helped establish expectations for what this would be like.
    I might’ve said,
    “You know what? You’ve thought up a bunch of really good questions to ask people. That’s excellent. But there’s more to this than pulling a card out and asking someone a question, getting a short answer and then asking the next one. The whole point is to get other people to talk and to tell stories. After you ask a question, the other person is going to talk. Maybe even for what seems like a long time. If someone talks for a long time telling a story, that’s how you know that you’ve thought up a good question.”
  • I would create a list with everyone’s name on it that the “interviewer” can mark off and track who has been asked a question and who has not. If, say, the child’s parent gets asked three questions before a question is asked of someone else, this helps ensure that everyone actually does takes turns.

Thanksgiving Plate of Food.

This Week: Thanksgiving Family Interviews 2.0

This week, I’d like to try a repeat of what we did last year. We have opportunities and challenges.


In addition to the usual suspects (Mom, brothers, hosting brother and his wife and children), we will have more people at this year’s gathering:

  • Sister in law’s parents who are visiting from Panama
  • Nephew A —sister in law’s nephew (Panamanian) and family, visiting from out of state
  • Cousin’s family, also visiting from out of state.
  • Cousinlings (cousin’s children)—more kids to think up and ask questions

More people around the table means more stories! Different stories from different people.

Those who were there from last year will have a sense of how this goes (oh yeah, I remember that from last year—We take turns answering questions).

This is a good way to introduce the Panamanian grandparents to sharing their stories through oral history. I don’t think they’ve been interviewed before. I do recall recording individual stories by friends and family members for Nephew A’s wedding, but his grandparents weren’t in the States for it.

The carving of the turkey Challenges

  • With more people around the table, it will make for a really long table. We might have a separate table for kids. Or it may be hard for someone way at one end to hear what the person at the other end of the table is saying.
  • Bilingual stories in a group setting.
    Obviously, it’s easier to tell a story in your own mother tongue. There will be stretches of time where people will not understand what the speaker is saying.

The kids that will help gather questions are older—three of the four are in the 9-12 year-old range.

Here, I brainstorm ways to involve them:

  • To the kids: Think up your own questions to ask.
  • Kids, go to the others and ask them to think of questions to ask someone else.
  • Now go through all the questions, and divide them into two types:
    1. A question for a specific person
      (such as, Dad, tell about when you first started surfing, Mom how did you become a gardener)
    2. A question you can ask anyone
      What was it like when you first went to high school? What was it like when your first baby was born?

    For the “ask anyone” kind, draw names of all the people present to make it random. (Oh wait, maybe this is too complicated. But hey, it can be crazy fun complicated, too)

What about you? Do you have any plans for gathering stories from family members at Thanksgiving or for the National Day of Listening?

UPDATE: Monday, 28 November, 2011. A great time was had by all. Arrived to learn that Nephew A did not, in fact, come for Thanksgiving. Other arrivals (Thursday was a travel day for two households) made it difficult to plan the interview with the kids. Back up plan: Let’s do this Friday. But oh, the numbers of people and the plans already in place and diverse directions they all went in made it too difficult to pull this together.

I had an incredibly marvelous time with family. Amazing. (Saturday morning at a frightfully early hour, we all gathered around the TV to watch the launch of Mars Curiosity Rover—my boyfriend worked on the landing radar system for the Mars Science Lab!) But recording interviews was not a part of the picture this year.

That’s a lesson in itself. Many people going in many directions makes it more difficult to do group activities. Come to think of it, last year’s gathering was “small” by our standards. 8 people. This year: 12 (plus: double the number of kids)

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 22, 2011 in • InterviewingPersonal History
2 CommentsPermalink

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Thanks for posting this link, it gave me food for thought when I visit my relatives in Dana Point during Thanksgiving.

Gus Marsh  on 11/23  at  10:47 AM

I am in the initial stages of an oral history to be posted on a website, involving experiences of members of a church I was involved with 35 years ago. I am approaching the experience with some trepidation, but at the same time I am very excited about the project!
Reading your blog has been extremely beneficial to easing my concernts, and while I still have some, I feel much more inclined to plow ahead! Thanks!

Jack  on 11/27  at  03:08 AM

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