Genealogy: The safe dinner conversation
By Margaret Hewitt
Genealogists are great at compiling timelines of (usually black and white) facts about their ancestors — birth dates, addresses, names of children.
But what’s harder to find on Ancestry are the bits of color and humanity hiding between the dates. Often, that information exists only in personal memories.
Use your Thanksgiving gathering to illuminate your family tree and add touches of personality to the facts discovered during your genealogy research. Skip the talk of politics and Steelers coaching, and instead use these tips to spark a family history conversation!
Bring out albums or photographs to pass around the table once the plates have been cleared. Invite your dinner guests to bring a few favorite photographs of their own.
You might be surprised who recognizes the
faces in old pictures, or what they remember about the events pictured. This is also a great opportunity to quickly scan or snap photos of pictures.
Know how to ask
Open-ended questions will always yield more
stories. Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Also avoid leading wording that already points toward a specific answer or is strongly opinionated.
Instead of “Wasn’t Grandma Jean a nice woman?” or “Don’t you think Finleyville was the best place to grow up?” you might say “When you think of your grandparents, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?” or “How would you describe your hometown during your childhood? How has it changed?”
Know your audience
And, know their comfort level. If you come from a family of extroverts who would be comfortable going around the table and answering questions “on the spot” one-by-one, that questioning style might work for you, but you’ll likely gain much more by letting the conversation develop naturally.
Ask follow-up questions when needed.
Use existing research wisely
Pulling out a 5” thick binder of pedigree charts will send your guests to sleep quicker than the tryptophan in their turkey and gravy. Instead, compile a few key notes and sources you can refer to for inspiration.
Often, I’ll sit down to work with a researcher who insists they “don’t know anything” about their family history. But seeing an occupation on a census record, a maiden name on a marriage license, a news clipping, or a yearbook photo will serve as the catalyst that gets them remembering details and talking.
Let everyone participate
Although you might ultimately be pursuing information about late ancestors that only the oldest relative in attendance can answer, don’t discount the input of the rest of the generations. How do their memories of certain ancestors differ? How do their experiences in the same school or town differ by age?
Keep those stories
Jotting notes in a notebook is the simplest way to keep a log of shared family stories. If everyone in attendance is ok with it, use a recording device or the voice memo app on your smartphone so you can focus on enjoying (and participating in) the conversation rather than writing it down.
Example conversation starters:
What did you eat for Thanksgiving when you were a child? Who hosted? Who came to the meal?
What is your favorite traditional family dish?
Who was the best cook in the family?
Will anyone be up early to go Black Friday shopping? Where did your family shop when you were young?
Who was the oldest relative you remember? What do you remember about him or her?
How did your family celebrate other holidays when you were a child? Do you remember any unique cultural traditions?
I noticed that Grandpa Bill was self-employed as a farmer on the 1930 census. What do you remember about his farm?
During the conversation, make note of relatives or stories to pursue further in individual interviews.
The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has a helpful online guide with more information about conducting oral history interviews and example questions.
Margaret Hewitt is Special Collections Librarian
for the Butler Area Public Library, where she
manages the Weir Genealogy Room and archival collections. She has an MA in Public History and is
a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists. Hewitt also serves on the board of the Slippery
Rock University Stone House Center for Public Humanities. When not climbing the branches of
various family trees, she enjoys working on
embroidery projects during Netflix binges, and
hiking National Parks.