Family Discoverer: Make time to talk to older relatives, friends and neighbors

Nancy Battick, Special to The County
9 years ago

    Most genealogists know they should talk to their older relations to find out what they remember of the family history.  I would add you should also talk to any surviving friends or neighbors as well.  Sadly, each year we lose more of our senior family members and their friends and with them memories and knowledge of the family story. In addition, the fog of age can sometimes steal these priceless memories from us. For example, I grew up hearing that my uncle by marriage worked for the state during The Depression and often waited weeks for a paycheck to appear.  He married my aunt in 1937 and she went with him wherever he worked and stayed in whatever was available for lodging.  They ate what they could afford or what was given to them.  During one paycheck lull a kind farmer allowed them to raid his crops and they laughingly related they ate potatoes and corn for one meal and corn and potatoes for the next.
They told me that they stayed in one tourist camp and some nice men were in the adjoining cabin.  My aunt was a small woman and the men had dashed out to help her when they saw her struggling with a heavy load of laundry. They were friendly, polite, and perfect gentlemen.  In a few days they moved on.  My aunt and uncle next saw the men in photos splashed across the newspapers.  Unknown to them, my aunt and uncle had been living next to the Al Brady gang!
I knew this story by heart but I never asked details such as the location of the camp and what was its name.  When I finally did ask my aunt in her old age she was suffering from cancer, her mind dulled by painkillers, and she couldn’t recall anything.
Don’t let this happen to you.  Make time to talk to older relatives, friends, and neighbors for what they remember about your family, your heritage, and anecdotes such as the Al Brady gang one above.  Ask if they have photos you can make copies of using your digital camera, cell phone, portable scanner, or tablet (the same goes for family letters, etc.). People are usually willing to share if the items don’t have to leave their home and you’ll know you have a copy of something that may later get tossed out by a member of the family who doesn’t value these genealogical treasures.
If your subject is willing, record the conversation but if not take discreet notes.  Arriving with recorder, even a small one, clipboard, and video camera may intimidate some people.
Remember also that some seniors are cautious about sharing family secrets even with relatives.  While today people let it all hang out and air everything in social media and TV, older members of your family were raised in a different time and may impose silence on what was then regarded as a scandal such as the baby born too soon after the wedding, the relative with a mental disorder, or even having native American blood.  These were dark secrets until recently.
One good tip for getting people to talk is to just ask them questions they can’t answer with a simple yes or no.  For example, if you know they went to one room schoolhouse ask how far they had to walk to school, games played during lunch hour,  favorite subjects and why — these can all lead to fuller answers and can be widened to include other aspects of their lives.
Keep the conversation chatty and fun and ask them what they recall about your ancestor.  Whatever you ask, keep your subject at ease.  If they’re reticent about a certain area then respect their need to keep it private, or promise to keep it secret and keep that promise during your relative’s lifetime.
Whatever you do, find time to talk to senior relatives, friends, or neighbors.  Once they’re gone the questions you wish you’d asked can never be answered.
  Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist.  You can contact Nancy at