Thanksgiving table talk and the National Day of Listening

Here’s a roundup of practical Thanksgiving Day advice for ways to collect family history around the Thanksgiving table. (Or before or after). I offer these in hopes that it adds some depth to your family holiday. These are blog posts and articles by others around the blogosphere.

Oh, and are you aware of a holiday tip that’s not mentioned here? Please let me know. I’m happy to make this collection grow to reflect the good advice and suggestions that are out there.


Paula’s Genealogical Eclectica has a list of good conversation-starter interview questions. [via Little Bytes of Life]

I wish I had asked my Grandma Gert what it was like to be 21 when women earned the right to vote in 1922. I would have had asked her mother, Nana, for details on growing up without a mother and why did they leave Canada.

A thanksgiving in 2004

Here are a few of her questions (geared toward the women elders in her family):

  • What was it like to make the decision to leave your home country and come to the U.S., Canada, England, or _____
  • What was it like to walk the picket line during the ___ strike?
  • What were the family dinners like as you were growing up?


National Day of Listening—The day after Thanksgiving is yhe National Day of Listening, according to StoryCorps. (an alternative to that Big, Big Shopping Day)

Playing with nieces and nephews before dinner, Aunt Susan pulls out her folded paper and scissors trick and creates an impromptu table decoration. The Root features an essay by NPR’s Michele Norris—ambassador for the National Day of Listening project. Norris remembers her father carving the Thanksgiving turkey.

He’d hover over the turkey for several minutes, holding his cherished electric knife and humming a little tune to himself before leaning in to apply his surgical skills to our supper. His whistle-while-you-work anticipation was a little ritual in our home, and I miss him so much, it aches during the holidays.

He died back in 1988, long before I married and had children. My kids now know a lot more about my father’s triumphs and his struggles on a life journey that took him from the shadows of the steel mills in segregated Birmingham, Ala., to middle-class life in an integrated Minneapolis neighborhood. Even so, my kids will never hear the sound of their grandfather’s voice because I never recorded him in conversation. That’s a shame. And it carries even more sting because I have spent almost two decades working in broadcasting, first in television and now in radio, as a co-host of All Things Considered.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Photography blog has a post devoted to capturing family memories at Thanksgiving, too.

My oldest brother, who usually hosts Thanksgiving, carves the turkey. The year: 2004 Personal Historian Beth LaMie offers 6 ideas to stimulate family stories at holiday gatherings. I’m particularly inspired by her ideas to involve people of all ages. I can use that. I’ve heard lots of stories, but once I think about ways to make the old (to me) stories come alive for my nieces, it’s all new again.

#4 Draw from the Hat
Here’s your chance to get really creative. Write a variety of questions onto small slips of paper and put them into a hat or bowl or basket. You can customize the questions to fit your own family or group of friends, mixing serious questions with silly ones. Be prepared to allow guests to switch the question if they are embarrassed or reluctant to answer. Remember that the purpose of the questions is to learn more about them while having fun with everyone.

Now this sounds like a fun thing to do with my 9-year-old niece. She can collect question ideas from everyone. And then ask the questions. Get that storytelling ball rolling.

This is also the first Thanksgiving a year after my dad’s death. Last year’s was not long after his memorial. I think this year is time to start a new tradition.

p.s. see the photo in the header of this site? That’s my nephew interviewing his grandma (my mother). Maybe it’s time to bring on the big microphone again.


Pie shells at Thanksgiving In the (currently snowy!) Tacoma, Washington News Tribune, Dorothy Wilhelm recalls a Thanksgiving overseas in Taiwan, and describes her plans for this year’s Thanksgiving to get combined with an idea for getting the youngers involved.

I am planning to try something different this holiday. The grandkids are beginning to express an interest in family history. It’s about time. So I hope to use the time that we would ordinarily spend critiquing the lifestyles of absent relatives to begin creating our own family history.

As one of my sons said, “I’m interested in how we came to be who and how we are. But I suppose one big thing, if it’s still possible to pin down, is when exactly did our various forebears come to America, and why?”

[…] I learned from Lakewood historian Cy Happy that sometimes it’s easiest to start with one single event. Start with the elders at the table. Ask them to recall their first day of school, or the first Thanksgiving they remember. Who was there? Where did they come from? Who were their parents? Choose a moderator and record everything. Don’t get bogged down in the details of what really happened. We do not all remember things the same way.

The Table is set for Thanksgiving Maureen “photo detective” Taylor’s November email (scroll down to Gather Round the Table: Family History at Thanksgiving) observes that there are family stories behind dishes, utensils, recipes, and picture-taking (but of course).

Families often pass on furniture, dishes and flatware to descendants.

If you have these objects in your house do you know their history? Do you know who owned them? In museum terms this is the provenance of the object-the whole history of ownership.

She urges you to get a photo of everyone. (in looking for the photos for this post, I re-discovered digital videos that capture A “dogpile” on Uncle T!)

My oldest brother sets out dishes of food. Dinner is just about to begin!! Let’s get downright genealogical. I favor the stories and legends, but Bobbi Holmes at Ancestorsafari. Prepare a “standard questionnaire sheet” and interview the people there—oldest first. You write down the answers, don’t make the person you’re asking do it.

What is your full name and the correct spelling? You may be surprised to learn that your favorite Uncle Ronny is actually named Reginald.

What was the date and place of your birth and marriage?


What is the full name of your spouse, and his/her date and place of birth, death or divorce?

What were/are the full names of your parents, along with your parent’s place of birth, marriage and death?

Illustration by Patrick J. Lynch Creative Commons Attribution 2.5; found on Flickr.com here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/patrlynch/450129278/in/set-72157600054741349/ And, while you’re at it…. Finally, another way to approach Family History. The United States Surgeon General declares Thankgiving Day to be National Family History Day (history? yes… medical history).

Over the holiday or at other times when families gather, the Surgeon General encourages Americans to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that seem to run in their family. Learning about their family’s health history may help ensure a longer, healthier future together.

Take that to heart. Along with the stories that you usually associate with family history. (and aren’t you glad I didn’t find an illustration related to the mouth for family oral history? So am I.)

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 23, 2010 in • GenealogyInterviewing
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