Have you ever tried to ask a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle about their memories of the past and come up empty? I definitely have. It usually goes something like this:
ME: “Can you tell me about So-And-So?”
THEM: “Well, what do you want to know?”
ME: “Um, anything…everything…whatever you can remember.” (figuring I don’t know what I don’t know, right?)
THEM: “So-And-So was a really great person.” (or something general like that)
ME: Disappointed, because I was hoping for more and I clearly did have an idea what I wanted to know.
If you can relate to this interaction – or simply want to avoid one like it! – read on. These are some tips I’ve learned while helping people collect memories for their family stories.
5 Tips to Collecting Memories:
1. It’s hard to get someone started talking. Be sensitive. Put yourself in their shoes. It’s a bit overwhelming at first to be asked something so sweeping like, “What do you remember about your mom?” You remember lots of things, but where do you start? What’s most important? What does this person really want to hear about? And very likely there are emotions wrapped up in the questions, too.
2. Start with specific questions geared toward fact-finding. Narrow the questions a bit, keep them aimed at fact-finding (not memories just yet) and get ready to ask a few in a row to get them talking. “Where did your mom grow up?” “Did your mom have siblings?” “Did your mom go to school?” “How did your mom meet your dad?” “Did your mom ever have a job outside the home?” “Did your mom have hobbies?” “Who were your mom’s closest friends?” You get the idea.
3. Gradually work in questions aimed at collecting memories, referencing any facts you just learned. “Do you remember your mom getting you ready for school?” “Do you remember any advice your mom gave you?” “What was it like to have a mom with a job outside the home?” “What was your favorite thing your mom cooked for you?” “Did your mom ever teach you any of her hobbies?” “Was your mom strict with you and your siblings?” “Do you remember any of her favorite outfits?”
4. Ask probing follow-up questions. You’ll find that each memory triggers another. Probe a bit further if you think there’s more to an answer. “Oh really, tell me why?” “What made you feel that way?” “Tell me more about that.” “Did you like that or not? And why?”
5. Use props. Sometimes it is very helpful to have a photograph, a book, a quilt, a piece of artwork – anything to trigger a memory or a story. Sometimes this could be a person too, like a sibling who may have shared memories. If someone is in their own home, this can be even easier – just look around and ask questions about their surroundings.
If you reach the point where sentences are starting with “I remember one time when….”, then congratulations! You have reached memory-collecting nirvana. At this point it might be harder to stop the conversation than it was to get it started!! (A good problem!)
Do you have any additional thoughts and tips from your own experiences collecting memories? I’d love to hear things that have worked well for you, things that haven’t worked at all, and any questions, of course!
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