Interviewing Family: Kim von Aspern-Parker of Le Maison Duchamps, Part 1
The first interview in this “Jamboree Genealogy Bloggers talk about Interviewing Family” series is with Kim von Aspern-Parker, who blogs at Le Maison Duchamp. I started by asking her to tell me of her experience interviewing family members. She began by describing her experience interviewing her dad.
This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and to remove, you know, a few, like, forms of spoken word that don’t, um, work as well as the written word. There are also places in the interviews where I withhold information at the request of the person interviewed.
Kim von Aspern-Parker: When I started interviewing my dad, I started asking him questions about his family, cause I was doing my genealogy. The first indication that I got from my dad that he was going to be a hard interview:
“What was your grandfather’s name?”
He says, “Mr. Gilchrist.”
“No, like first name, Dad.”
So, every time I interviewed my dad it was like draaaaagging information out of him, except this one time - he was having congestive heart failure—so he was on oxygen, and his oxygen saturation got low. Well, when your oxygen saturation gets low, you got loopy—it’s like you’ve been drinking.
And so my dad was wandering around the house singing, “All the girls are wild simply wild over me.”
And he sat down and he goes, “Did I ever tell you I was a Deejay?”
And I went “No!”
And he says “Yep, during World War 2. Worked at the NCO Club. I was a deejay.”
At that time the NCO clubs were segregated. So he would be changing out the records not only in the white men’s NCO clubs, but also in the black officers NCO clubs. He would go and give the records from the black NCO clubs to his brother-in-law who was copying the styles. My father’s brother-in-law was name withheld by request , and he was the drummer for a musician who greatly influenced the direction of rock and roll (name withheld by request.)
So that’s one of my family stories.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Wow. Now, when you sat down with your dad, did you say “Tell me stories.” Did you record it? Did you have a tape recorder, did you—
Kim von Aspern-Parker: I did use prompts every time I talked to him. I used the book To Our Children’s Children. I love the questions in that book. And it would get them talking. Plus, since my degree was in journalism, I have a little bit more background on knowing how to ask questions. So you don’t ask questions that somebody could answer yes or no to, like,
“Do you know who your grandfather is?”
“Do you want to share that information?”
So I would ask questions like “What is the best practical joke you ever played?” Or “What practical joke do you remember?” and then my dad would tell me these wonderful stories about how he was in grade school and they stole somebody’s underwear and run it up the flagpole.
Or I would ask him, “who do you remember from your neighborhood?” and he would say, ” Ok, well, let’s see… across the street was Charlie—he lived here” and it led to my father drawing out an entire diagram of his neighborhood. Which is invaluable for me as a genealogist—now you know who lived where when you get that census. And you have stories for each person.
“Oh, Charlie was my best friend. We used to dig up worms together and we used to go down to the lake and fish.”
And so it would lead to stories like that my dad would share with me. Those are invaluable to me. I taped all of them—
FOHUDT: Cassette tapes?
KvAP: Yes, cassette tapes. That was back in the day.
FOHUDT: How long ago was this?
Kim von Aspern-Parker: I started to interview my dad in 1982, I think. It was over a considerable amount of time. He passed away in 2001. So every year or so, I would take a day or two and ask him to tell me stories.
I really am sad that I didn’t tape the stories that were at Christmastime and stuff like that, when we were just sitting down and he’d just start talking, and I didn’t have anything with me that I could pull out [to start recording] and say, “wai—wai—wait, say that again.”
Maybe you shouldn’t bring out a genealogy chart
My aunt in Florida is 90, and I just visited her, and I wanted her to tell me family stories. And every time I would pull out the chart and say, “Okay, so what do you remember about your grandfather Henry Landry?” she’d say, “Ah. They’re all dead people, I don’t want to talk about them. They’re just all dead people.”
So I got in the habit of taking my tape recorder with me. And I had just a little handheld digital—and I’d bring out my phone and my notebook and everything I had—my cup of tea. I just set everything else that I was carrying with me down, and the tape recorder would be on. I wouldn’t tell her anything, I’d just set it all down on the table. And we’d start talking, and I’d say something about—“you remember when you told me the story about Henry, what was that about?—that he had a farm, or he lost the farm, or what?” and she’d go, “Oh!” and she’d start telling me the story.
But if I pulled out the tape recorder and let her know it was on, she would not talk to me.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Did you ever discuss with her the fact that you had recorded this?
Kim von Aspern-Parker: Oh yeah, she knows.
FOHUDT: She knows. Tell me about that conversation with her. How she come to know that?
Kim von Aspern-Parker: Because later I said, “You know, all these stories you’re telling me. They’re all about our family, It’s not so much that they’re dead people but they’re our family.” And I said, “And I didn’t grow up in this family, so I don’t know these stories. So I’ve been taping them so I can have them.”
She was okay with that. She just didn’t want to talk about dead people. So anytime I’d pull out the genealogy chart, that was talking about dead people.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: So the chart equals dead people, versus “oh you know that story blah blah blah,” the “by-the-way”…
Kim von Aspern-Parker: The by-the-way casual conversation about her father or her grandfather or whatever—that was okay.
Or “tell me a story about your husband who was in the air force and he’s passed on.”
Those were okay: she didn’t mind talking family stories. She didn’t care that I was recording it. She just cared that I didn’t pull out that genealogy chart—that meant “dead people” to her.
KvAP: Isn’t that funny?
And I need the chart to keep track of who’s who.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Right. Yeah you kind of have to have your little crib sheet on a small 3 x 5 card. So are those the two people that you’ve interviewed? Have you interviewed other people?
Kim von Aspern-Parker: Mostly, yeah. I have wonderful aunts and uncles that live into their 90s. The problem is some of them love to tell stories. My Aunt Lena loved to tell stories. And she used to put out newsletters every Mondays and she would tell stories about the family. So I have tons of family stories from her that she put out on those Monday messages that she sent to all her friends and family.
KvAP: Yeah. She would send them out on email. She sent them out before she died. Now her daughter has a blog and is kinda continuing that. So that’s really fun. We have family stories that come to me from all different places.
Remembering to Listen
I think that the trick is remembering to listen. Not just to know which questions to ask, but remember to listen because the stories happen just in the weirdest times, like people driving somewhere: “Oh, my gosh, that reminds me of the time when—” If you’re just kinda going, Oh, yeah, yeah, okay—you’re not paying attention, and listening, and then expanding on it, saying, “Well, how old were you? What school were you at? Were your friends in on that?” You need to know how to continue the conversation, how to keep it going so that it becomes a whole blown story, and not just a remark.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: And that’s something that especially your journalism background has helped you with. Do you think that you already had a sense of that before you got into journalism?
Kim von Aspern-Parker: I think I had a sense of that. I’m nosy. I’m a nosy person, so I had a sense of that beforehand, that I was always asking questions and saying—
“Why did you do that?” or “How come?”
“Well, because my friend thought it was a good idea.”
“Well, Really? if I did that now you wouldn’t punish me, Mom?”
“Yeah, I probably would.”
“Well what made you think it was a good idea then?”
I’ve always been the question person and drive my family crazy. I have that; I think that journalism honed that a little bit. Somebody could develop it if they were interested in the stories. You have to be interested.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: If you had advice for somebody who was starting out with interviewing someone who thinks, “I’d like to do this,” what one thing is the biggest takeaway or one of the biggest takeaways? (Or, if more than one thing, boil it down to three best bits of advice)
Kim von Aspern-Parker: Don’t interrupt them.
Because a lot of times you’re interviewing somebody and you ask them the question, “Okay, now where was grandma born?”
And they say, “Oh, you know grandma was born in Wichita Kansas” (or wherever), and they start telling you “you know, she told me this time about a tornado she lived through” and she starts talking about the tornado.
Well, now you’re thinking, “yeah, but I need her birth date, yeah, but I need her birth date . You’re not telling me about her birth date .”
You’re missing the story they are telling you about how grandmother lived through the tornado and lost her house (or whatever the story is). And people will tend to interrupt and say, “Okay, okay, tell me about that later, but right now I need—” and you’ve lost the story. They’ll never come back to it. So if they start on something, let them go on it.
My second best advice is pull out the photo album. The photo albums get people talking.
You can see, and ask:
“Well, who’s this in this picture?”
“That’s your grandpa Henry.”
“Well, who’s he holding?”
“Oh! That was the first baby born that year.”
“Who is it?”
And then it starts the story talking about when that baby came to visit and we had a big family reunion and Aunt Sally was there, and that was the last time anybody saw Aunt Sally, she disappeared after that. And the story goes on and on and on.
It’s a story you wouldn’t have gotten if you hadn’t looked at that picture.
Those are my two best ones.
FOHUDT: Have you seen…
(at this point I started talking about the posts I’ve done on this site about photo albums)
I’ve done a few blog posts about working with photo albums for working with interviews.
What I saw when I witnessed a family interview take place during a holiday visit (the interview was with photo albums).
I share those interviewing with photo-album-lessons again, with better instructions.
In part 2, I have a YouTube movie where we’re going through my interview of my mom with some of the pages from the album. So you can get a sense of how to do it if you’re going to have a recording so that it works.
In the next post—the second half of Kim von Aspern-Parker’s interview:
- More about getting permission for conducting interviews
- The hardest person to interview (and why)
- Kim’s concluding advice for others who want to interview family
Susan, thanks so much for this series. I’m finding it really interesting & helpful to hear others’ experiences w/interviewing family.
Kim, I’m nosy too. I agree about not interrupting but I sometimes find that hard, especially when I’m feeling enthusiastic & want to jump in with comments. Or when I think of something related to ask—that’s when I’ve jotted a note to myself on the side while listening. (I take notes too.)
I also agree that talking about photos is a marvelous way for anyone (interview-er or -ee) who feels nervous about the process to get into interviews w/family. Asking for help identifying people in photos is also a good way to get to know someone a little and gauge their interest in telling stories if it’s a relative you don’t know well or haven’t seen in a long time.
I think that dealing with one’s own propensity to interrupt is an issue that “I will always be working on.” How I interview today is better than how I was a while back. But there’ll always be room for improvement.
Liz, I’m glad you’re enjoying the Interviewing Family series. There’s more to come!