Interviewing Family: Joan Miller of Luxegen

Joan MillerGenealogy Conference Junkie gets buttonholed for “have you interviewed your family” discussion. Result: Breakthrough. Joan Miller, from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, blogs at Luxegen. She says she’s a “genealogy conference junkie” – which is how she came to be in Southern California for the June 2011 Genealogy Jamboree. I asked Joan about her experience conducting family interviews, this is the result. Well, no, the results are better than this, because our discussion helped get Joan through a brick wall human will wall.

(Two notes—One about editing, one about timing.
Editing: These transcribed interviews are lightly edited for clarity and to remove a few spoken-word ums and things like that. There are also places in the interviews where I withhold information at the request of the person interviewed.

Timing: As I was working on this post, I came down with a baaaad case of wintery flu+bronchitis cough-a-palooza and took an unscheduled and unannounced break from posting here at Family Oral History. By the time I emerged from my haze of it all, I saw that Joan Miller’s taking a blogging break to heal from an illness. Get well, Joan.)

A Tale of Two Relatives

Joan Miller: I have two stories. My mother and my mother-in-law. My mother doesn’t want to answer any questions on tape because she might forget. It might not be right. It might be— she’s “forgetting it wrong” is what she says. So she clams up right away. She won’t tell any stories, yet she’ll tell lots of stories when there’s no recorder around. I have to get her past that so I can get the wonderful stories down.

Girl Guide Annual cover. Creative Commons photo by Ron Hollins, at flickr: Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: What have you been doing so far?

Joan Miller: Well, I actually told her about you, and how you use your recorder to record and you started with your grandfather and all that sort of stuff.

All I said was, “Could you tell some stories about when we went Guiding* (when I was 12 and we went to Guide Camps and those kinds of things)? Tell me about that.”

*Guiding—Girl Guides is the Canadian organization that’s equivalent to the American Girl Scouts and Scouting.

She’d just start, and she said, “You’re not recording this, are you?” Then she just stopped.

How do I get her past that?

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Have you, yet?

Joan Miller: I haven’t. I’ve only got one little story on tape, and that’s it.

I think Mom is worried.  She’s thinking that she’s forgetting too.

(Someone close to Joan’s Mom has issues surrounding memory loss.)

Whereas my Mother-in-law’s attitude, on the other hand, anything that will help the family history, family genealogy, “I’ll tell you all the stories.” She remembers very well, and she has told me stories, and I’ve got things down. That’s a completely different experience.

So those are the two different aspects of coming from the two different mothers.

Joan Miller and I talk some more about her mother’s reticence to be recorded.

Cream Separator (an illustration from Joan's blog) Joan Miller: What I do do is I blog our family stories, and I’ll say, “Mom, how do you remember that? Because you know, I was too little and I have my version of it, and I asked my sister…” and so on.

She’ll say, “Let me think about it.”

I’ll phone her later and say, “Do you remember that story about what we were talking about, the cream separator?” (Because we grew up on a ranch, you know, separating milk). And then she’ll start telling me the story,  and I remember there was a million discs to wash—the separator has all these discs.”

She says, “Yeah, there were quite a few of them,” and then she’d go into more detail and she’d start telling me the story and I could put it on the blog [her Cream Separator blog post], as long as I don’t have a recording of her saying that.

(We puzzle through possible reasons why Joan’s mother is afraid to be recorded.)

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: It’s the voice and it’s the immediacy. I’ve long since gotten over—or at least I’ve gotten comfortable with— what I sound like in conversation with all my sentences begun that are not finished and my particular wacky habits of speech. It is what it is.

Joan Miller: You are who you are and that’s how you sound. I think she might be worried that it’s going to be put out there on the internet or something, because I have a blog. I tell her, “This is just for our family history, just for my records, so we don’t lose the story.” And I think that might be another thing, too.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Do you have any vocal recordings of anybody in your common family—your ancestry—who have died?

Joan Miller: We have a videotape of my grandmother.

FOHUDT: That’s her mother?

JM: Mm hm, yep. Her mother.

FOHUDT: What is her response to that?

JM: Well, she thinks it’s really cool. [laughs] Yeah.

FOHUDT: “Yes, Mom.. and—?” (said with deliberate connect-the-dots tone of voice: It’s cool to have a recording of her voice, but not cool to record yours?)

Joan Miller: So that’s the challenge. Whereas my mother-in-law is very open to whatever.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: So you’ve a challenge, you got one that’s very open.

Did you have any experience of interviewing your mother-in-law where your reaction was like, Omigod, this worked really well, or I was surprised by this, or something that stands out as an interview experience you want to tell me about?

Joan Miller: Well, my mother-in-law is one of these natural storytellers. Because we were doing these interviews talking about her childhood or whatever, she and I are doing a book. We are going to do a book called The Aumack Resort—no, “Or So The Story Goes”—that’s the title. We’ve decided. Because she’s always saying that, “…Or so the story goes.” [laughter]

The Homestead at Meeting Lake, Saskachewan, which later became a resort. (Slightly retouched) Image from Joan Miller, displayed in this post at her site: She grew up in a rural area in Saskatchewan, on this little lake. Her parents came from Michigan to homestead in Saskatchewan, and they started up a resort on the lake. They built these cabins and had these little rowboats, and had a human-sized checker set, and they had mini golf—this was back in the 30s before mini golf was everywhere. And she was telling me the story about growing up there. 

I said, “You’ve got all these pictures, you’ve got all these stories, we gotta get this down.” So I wrote up a draft. I said, “We’re writing a book.”

She’s all, “This is a great idea.”

And because she’s been putting an album together of all these loose pictures, or whatever, I said, “We’re going to digitize them. And we’re going to put the stories down and here’s the draft.” When she was going to Saskatchewan, I said, “Take this draft with you—I made up a whole bunch of copies. Give it to all the relatives around there and see if we can get more pictures, more stories to include.”

She said, “I’ve always wanted to publish the recipes that they have from the resort.”

I said, “We can put those in the book.”

So that’s what came out of that interview.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  Wow. It’s a book and it’s becomes a history of that place.

Joan Miller: Yeah. It’ll be not just our family who’s interested in it. It’ll be all these people that came to the resort, and their families. She even remembers some of the names of the people that used to come—the doctor that used to rent the cabin over there, you know, all that kind of stuff. I thought that was amazing.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Yeah. That is excellent. That is totally excellent.

Joan Miller: I said, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, we’ll do it in a digital format. We can change it, update it, whatever.” We’ll put it on or something. Or Amazon.  Probably Lulu.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: That sounds great!


Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: What was it like working with the equipment? Did you have any hiccups, learning curves, anything?

Joan Miller: Well, one time I thought I would push record, and didn’t. You know, a stupid thing. Um, but it’s been pretty good. And this little recorder, it has to be fairly close, you know, sort of between the two people.

FOHUDT: And it’s small enough—where it—

Joan Miller: Yeah, it’s not intrusive.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Neither is this [the livescribe pen I used for this interview].

JM: I like that.

My 2GB Livescribe Pulse Pen, shown with the notes of my interview with Joan; shown here without the attachable mic-in-headphones. Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Yeah, this is where the sound is coming in, the sound is being recorded in the headphones there.

Joan Miller: I saw one of those advertised in the Skymall magazine on the airplane—but not as good as that one.

FOHUDT: This—is actually a few years old. Livescribe has come out with some newer models.

Joan Miller: What kind is that?

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: It’s a Livescribe pulse pen. It’s the old 2 gigabyte Pulse Smartpen—I got it when the 2 gig version was the top of the line (back in 2008). They’ve got pens with more storage space—4 GB Echo Smartpen and 8 gigabyte Echo Smartpen. And an entire revamped model. When you use it, it comes across to others as “oh I’m just taking notes.”
(Links to pens are affiliate links.)

On Disclosure and Permission

Joan Miller: What about the issue of recording people without them knowing?

FOHUDT: How do I feel about that? [Sigh.] I don’t like that.

JM: I don’t like that, either.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: I’ve been hanging around enough with oral historians where there is an ethical standard for this. You ask permission. I did have an interview earlier today with somebody who didn’t let the person know first that they were recording, but then said afterwards,

“Because these are important stories to me,  I recorded it.”

“Oh, Okay.”—that was the response. So there was disclosure later, after the fact.

Joan Miller: It was kind of like they tricked them, though.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  And so, um, and yet there is that fear of the equipment. I mean, it may be that you say to your Mom, “Look, look, go ahead and do this. And you know, it’s digital whatever, I can delete it right afterwards if you feel like after the end of this—”

Joan Miller: That’s a good idea.

“That it didn’t work. I can delete it.”

FOHUDT:  And so you give her an out, and you give her an experience—“How was it?” “It wasn’t so bad.” Or: “Sure, you told me, and you went and corrected yourself. If you’re listening to that one sentence, maybe it doesn’t make sense, but in the course of the whole recording you clarified it.”

JM: That’s a good idea—give her that sense…  “Let’s listen to it…”

FOHUDT:  Let’s listen to it.

JM: She might be self-conscious about hearing herself or something like that.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  She doesn’t have to listen to it. But it’s more like “Let’s have this conversation, and tentatively we’ll record it, and at the end of it, you tell me how you feel, and if you want me to erase it, I will.” And you just hope it wasn’t as bad as she feared.

An upcoming celebration: Hopes and Plans

Meeting Lake, Saskachewan. Creative Commons photo by Jeff/Space Ritual. Photo page: Joan Miller: We’re going to spend a week with her in July—a long weekend. We’re celebrating her 80th birthday. We rented a place at the lake. So there’s going to be family all around. There’s going to be stories. I’m printing out this huge family tree banner. Lots of cousins coming and stuff. And I’m thinking the stories will come out.  After the main weekend, a bunch of people will leave. And then there’ll be the core of us for a week. So, maybe then I’ll tape them all.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  Maybe depending who’s there, or whatever, if you have somebody get up and say, “I’m going to tell you a story,” where you hear someone else talking—and you know we’re just telling stories.

Joan Miller: It will be around the campfire. We can do that. My sister has a phenomenal memory for trivia. She remembers the little things that we were doing when we were kids. And so she is a good prompter for that kind of stuff. What did we do then? How did we do that? or whatever. I’m thinking that’d be a good time.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  Please keep me informed what happens with your Mom. Because that—I mean, I come from extroverts and exhibitionist kind of people—where it’s like, “Oh yeah, sure, you want me to do this? Yeah!” you know, it’s like the first time I came here to Jamboree I had a little booth here and my Mom shows up and I did an interview demo, you know, I’ll show you how it’s done, blah blah blah—she rises to the occasion, she’s a docent. So, when it comes to a situation like yours, I don’t have that experience of that reticence. And yet, people might want to know, “well, you do all this interview stuff, so what do I do if—?” “Well, I’ll tell you what some other people have done”—and that’s why I’m collecting these.

How to help a friend

Joan Miller: And then another story is my friend—I think I told you about my friend who’s got lung cancer. I sort of broached it once about collecting her stories because she’s terminal and she was not really receptive. But that was a few months ago. So I’m going to try again. Right now she’s going off to China—she’s Chinese—for some more treatment I guess. And she’s doing Chi Gong. I’ve even taking her to Chi Gong. I want to record her growing up in China, those kind of stories. Because when she’s gone … they’re going to love having that.

FOHUDT: Does she have children?

Joan Miller: She does.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  There was something I heard about. And it may be difficult, but, to say, “I just want to get a recording of your voice reading a story to your kids that you read to them. So that they can have this—so this is something that they can have the sound of.” Because it’s a start, an easy way in. And this is what I heard about among some—in the Association of Personal Historians. Sometimes these things where you’re dealing with hospice care kidna stuff or terminal end of life. It’s not the big huge story of your life. It’s like the person thinks, “Oh yeah, I could do that.”

Joan Miller: That’s a good idea.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  Yeah, read a story to your kids. Can’t remember where it was that I saw that. (Note: Here is the original article, which came to my attention via an email on the Association of Personal Historians mailing list)

The first thing you do is say, here’s a story, here’s a recording, just have this recording for your kids. And if that gets her in this reflective mood where something happens afterwards, where she says, “well, you know, because I want to make sure that my boys know—it’s boys, sons right? I want to make sure that my boys know blah blah blah blah blah. and the recorder’s going.

Joan Miller: Especially when she’s going to be coming back from China, and we’ll get together with you when she’s back and then so all these things in China will remind her of so many things that she can tell me. So. Yes.

It’s an awful disease, lung cancer. It sends out little tumors everywhere in the body.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  Well, good for you for doing your part on one front.

Joan Miller: Any other questions?

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  Well, one of the questions that I was thinking of asking and I don’t know if you’ve already answered this—like has there been any sort of like disaster fiasco or something like that or just you know just you know, ooops.

Joan Miller: Nope, I haven’t got that much experience with it yet. It will happen, I’m sure, other than that one time where I didn’t record. But I caught it later.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  Okay, I think that’s it. But again, keep me informed what goes on with your mother.

Joan Miller: Especially with this 80th birthday…

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  Probably you will get stories from other people there.

Joan Miller: What I might do is like if we’re sitting around the campfire with my brother and my sister and everybody’s talking about growing up and whatever, and I could tell them I’m recording. I could tell everybody that I’m recording. But get them to lead the story, so Mom doesn’t have to speak all the time, she can just interject with her thoughts. “I remember this way” or whatever.

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  You get the social interactions where, in a situation like that, the recorder is going to really be diminished in power in her eyes.

Joan Miller: Yeah. And everybody has a different perspective on the events. That could be a very valuable recording just itself to get my brother and sister to talk….

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  yeah. My boyfriend—I sat down with his Mom and did a short recording, maybe 40 minutes. And um she later had increasingly—her dementia got worse and worse, and she died. And then I was helping my boyfriend write a eulogy for her memorial. And I said, You want to listen to this recording? And he was like, you know we fortified with wine ahead of time, like what’s this going to be like. He goes, “Susan, I’m so glad you did this.” So having that kind of experience myself with my grandpa, and this experience in with my boyfriend and his mom, um,—”

Joan Miller: It’s important

Family Oral History Using Digital Tools:  I hope you can do that.

Joan Miller: One regret that I had is that I never got my father on any kind of recording or whatever.

On her blog, Joan Miller describes that discusses the results of this and other conversations as she describes the family gathering for her mother’s 80th birthday. The outcome was successful!

We were celebrating Mom’s 80th birthday at the lake. I was emcee and one of the games we played was the “Memories Game”.  This game came to me in the one of the middle of the night brain waves.  It was a true experiment because I wanted to use the recorder, something I hadn’t done in a large group setting before.  I primed most of the family members in attendance ahead of time so they could think about their memories and be prepared.

How it worked

We went around the group one by one and I asked everyone to give a memory they had of the birthday girl, perhaps from her childhood or as a Mom, Grandma, aunt or sister. I also asked if people were okay with passing a recorder around while we were doing this. We were to pretend the recorder was a microphone; the individual was to give us their memory then hand the recorder to the next person. Whom ever had the recorder had the floor.

The Memories Game was wildly successful. [Read the entire post]

She also picked up a Livescribe pen and described what it was like to work with it, in her second post about the 80th birthday party.

Joan and I didn’t just talk about her family interview circumstances. We also had some fitness fun at Jamboree. She’s more athletic than I am, but since I was just starting a fitness program in which I was doing planks, she joined me. Her form is better.

Joan Miller and I have fun at Jamboree. Note: This was NOT during our interview. She's althletic. I'm learning to be athletic. She planks well. I (at the time) was still learning. Photo by Cheryl Palmer of Heritage Happens,

Photo credits:
Girl Guides magazine. Creative Commons photo by Ron Hollins
Fireworks at Meeting Lake, Saskachewan: Creative Commons photo by Jeff/Space Ritual.
Planking at Jamboree: Photo by Cheryl Palmer of Heritage Happens
Other photos courtesy Joan Miller, Luxegen

This post is part of the Interviewing Family series

I talk to genealogists at So Cal Genealogical Society Jamboree about their experiences interviewing family. Other posts in this series:


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on February 09, 2012 in • GenealogyInterviewing
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