Open discussion thread: Have you tried it? Or do you want to? What was it like?

Have you conducted some form of oral history with one or more person in your family? What was it like? What did you learn? What would you like to know? What are the “stuck points” that prevent you from doing so? Did you overcome them? How? Now that you’ve done it, how do you feel about it?

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 15, 2006 in • Do it: YourselfInterviewing
7 CommentsPermalink

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About ten years ago, my girlfriend (now wife) and I stayed with my grandmother in Detroit while we were in town for the wedding of a friend of mine.  I brought along a little cassette recorder with a built-in condenser microphone, and one day we sat down with my grandmother at her kitchen table with some photographs and she told us the story of her life. Her story was a pretty incredible one, starting in what is today Ukraine and was at the time the border between Austria-Hungary and Russia, just before World War I; being orphaned as a child; moving first to Canada as a teenager and then to the U.S.; the difficult years spent living with her uncle; and then meeting my grandfather.  I was very close to my grandmother when I was growing up, and I knew some of the outlines of these stories, but getting them on tape in detail was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I understand her so much better knowing how she became the person I knew.

I just relistened to the recording this afternoon, and it took me back to that house that I spent so much time in as a child, but more importantly, it took me back much further.  It’s actually kind of painful to listen to parts of it; the ways in which her mother and father died were pretty gruesome, and what happened to the five children afterward was no treat either. She really was the lucky one; one brother and one sister died in World War II (just their luck to live right where such a big part of the fighting was done in the two most horrific wars of the 20th century). The surviving brother and sister didn’t have easy lives, the brother staying in their village in Ukraine and the sister being forcibly moved to Poland (because of her Polish husband) in the aftermath of WWII.

I know there are posts here that talk about the mechanics of the equipment and such, but even if you’ve just got a cheap cassette recorder, it’s important to do this. My grandmother’s story is so compelling to me, and I feel so fortunate to have this record of her life in her own words. I’ve done more research into my family history through official records and the census and all the other stuff that you do when you get involved with genealogy, but talking to my grandmother ten years ago was the most important thing I’ve done in my research, because she was someone I knew so well and this helped me understand her so much better.

Ralph Brandi  on 05/16  at  01:07 PM

Ralph, I totally agree that tools are tools, yes, but the most important thing is to Just! do! it!

Susan A. Kitchens  on 05/16  at  02:15 PM

Just to add a cautionary tale in case you’re not convinced to just do it now, about four years ago my wife and I were visiting her parents, and I had brought along a ship’s manifest I had found in the course of my research for my wife’s great-grandfather. The information on the manifest didn’t match up with some things I had heard, so my mother-in-law said, “I’ll call Aunt Jo, she’ll know the story.” Aunt Jo lived five blocks away.  Aunt Jo was 96 years old.  Aunt Jo’s mind was as sharp as a tack, and she filled us in on the details of her father’s second (and final) trip to America and why the manifest said he had come from a different village in Italy.  As my mother-in-law was saying good bye to Aunt Jo, Aunt Jo asked if we wanted to hear about the other side of the family, her mother’s side.  My mother-in-law said she would send me and my wife down to visit her the following weekend.

The following weekend, Aunt Jo was in the hospital, and a few days after that, we were attending her funeral.  It took me a year of research to find out the name of the village her mother came from, something I could have known easily if we had gone down to her house that afternoon.  And I think Susan has mentioned this, but when a person dies, it’s like burning down a library.  All their stories are gone.

Ralph Brandi  on 05/16  at  03:14 PM

About fifteen years ago I got excited about oral history and invited my grandmother to tell me her story on tape. What a sweet experience. My sister transcribed the resulting seven casette tapes and used the transcription as the foundation for a wonderful little book about Grandma Davis.

Since then I

KMerrell  on 07/06  at  05:01 PM

Testing comment.

Doc M  on 07/07  at  01:05 AM

A delightful site and great inspiration.  I have an iRiver media player with a 20GB drive that includes recording capabilities.  The built-in microphone is the pits - we’re so surprised - and I was wondering if you were planning an article on microphones.  I know absolutely nothing about what to look for so any direction would be very helpful. 

Family Matters -

Denise  on 09/10  at  02:10 PM

I did a digital video interview with my grandmother a few years ago.  I learned that it would have been really worth it to make some time to put myself together a little more before hand.  “All natural” is not how I prefer to go about a normal day, and I wish I had fixed my hair and put on some makeup in preparation.  I wish I had done a test run the day before to see the lighting results, because I would have used my flash light that had a steady option.  I would have closed the windows (my neighbor had a truck deliver a load of gravel while we did our interview).  I would have been more prepared to go with the flow…  My baby (who had a sitter upstairs) woke up and needed to nurse in the middle of it.  My cat absolutely had to get in the video and snuggle up with grandma while I’m trying to talk to her.  At the time, while I didn’t over react on camera, I was really peeved that they were interrupting my precious recording time, but this is life, and our real reactions to it are as much a part of what we captured as those special memories my grandmother recorded.  Plus, my baby is 5 now and my cat just passed away, and I’m so glad I have those precious moments on tape, although it wasn’t my plan at all!

Sasha Mitchell  on 09/15  at  09:41 PM

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