My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley
Have you noticed that most people develop an interest in family
history just after most of the older members of their family are dead
or sliding in that direction? I confess that I only had a few good
sources left when I suddenly realized that when the last of these
older relatives were gone, the history would die with them. I did
have an advantage–as a kid I loved to listen to stories, even the
ones ending with, “And what you can learn from this story is….”
Knowing enough so that you know what questions to ask helps a lot.
I began visiting and collecting family stories back when my kids were
young. I took my tape recorder and my camera for each visit.
Sometimes I visited long-time neighbors of relatives and got family
stories from them that my own relatives had forgotten, or chosen not
to tell. Most of the people I interviewed in the seventies and
eighties are gone now, and every so often I get a call or letter from
someone who has heard I had a tape of their grandparent or aunt, and
now they want a copy. I’m happy to oblige.
Besides loving stories, I have another advantage: I have two surviving
aunts. Both have always been known for having the best memories in
the family. The aunt I’m closest to–I’ll call her Mollie–is a joy to
visit and is happy to relive any of the old days I want to hear about.
Her sister “Dorilee” is another case entirely. Aunt Dorilee has a
sour disposition and is always alert for ulterior motives, so my
visits to her have been infrequent. Finally, however, I decided I had
to see what stories she could tell me. Armed with my tape recorder,
my camera, and some old family photos I showed up at her house one
“What do you want?” she asked when I identified myself.
“I was hoping I could get some family stories from you,” I answered
with a smile.
She stared at my camera. “I don’t remember nothing.”
My smile began to feel forced. “Weren’t you were still living with
Maw and Dad when my parents got married?”
“Mighta been, but I don’t remember nothing.”
Uninvited, I sat down, pulled out my tape recorder, and set it on the
table next to my chair.
Dorilee’s frown deepened. “What’s that contraption?”
“A tape recorder,” I said. “I want to record every word you say
because I’m sure my memory isn’t as good as yours.”
“Yours would have to be better’n mine,” she said without taking her
eyes off the recorder.
I pushed the “on” button. “Do you remember how you felt when William
showed up with his war bride after World War II?”
“I didn’t like Hilde then, and I don’t like her now.”
“How did you meet your husband?”
“Too far back to remember, and why does that matter anyway?
This is how the entire visit went. Later, when I reported to Aunt
Mollie, she said I’d gone about it entirely wrong.
As if I didn’t know!
“Next time don’t take anything but a pocketbook and something she can
sell at the flea market,” Aunt Mollie advised. “Go in the summertime,
but before it’s too hot, and first drive by her house to see if she’s
in the yard. If she is, stop and give her whatever you brought and
just sit down and talk about the weather for a spell. After while you
start telling some family story–only make sure you tell it wrong.
Dorilee will take it from there.”
Now I’m ready. If Dorilee can just hang on until next summer!
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