Many people don’t know very much about their older relatives. But if we don’t ask, we risk never knowing our own history.
You might think you already know your family’s stories pretty well—between childhood memories and reunions and holiday gatherings. You may have spent hours with your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles soaking up family lore. But do you really know as much as you think?
As a professor of anthropology, I have always been fascinated by the stories that families tell, and a few years ago, I started researching the tales that are passed down from generation to generation. Part of my motivation was personal. When my mother died in 2014, I realized how much I didn’t know about her life. I never asked the questions that haunt me now—questions about what interactions she had, what it was like to live in her time in the places she did. I wish I had a fuller sense of her as a person, especially how she was when she was young, with a lust for life.
In my research, I have been astonished to find that so many other people also know little of the lives of their parents and grandparents, despite the fact that they lived through some pretty interesting decades. Even my students, some of whom majored in history and excelled at it, were largely in the dark about their own family history. Our elders may share some familiar anecdotes over and over again, but still, many of us have no broader sense of the world they lived in, and especially what it was like before we came along. The people I interviewed knew so little about their grandparents’ or parents’ early lives, such as how they were raised and what they experienced as young people. Few could remember any personal stories about when their grandparents or parents were children. Whole ways of life were passing away unknown. A kind of genealogical amnesia was eating holes in these family histories as permanently as moths eat holes in the sweaters lovingly knitted by our ancestors.
As I interviewed more people, many of them parents or grandparents themselves, I became interested in hearing their stories and learning about their childhood. I developed a set of questions designed to get a person talking about the past in a way they never had before. Their answers opened whole new worlds to me, and reflected each person’s unique place in history. I heard some things I expected, but I was also surprised and delighted. I gained a new appreciation for those I interviewed—and for humanity as a whole. And I became convinced of the value of preserving these family histories. Doing so helps you learn more about not only your relatives, but also yourself and a period in history that might otherwise feel remote.
This article has been adapted from Elizabeth Keating’s new book, The Essential Questions. (TarcherPerigee)
The questions I created, which I lay out in my new book, The Essential Questions: Interview Your Family to Uncover Stories and Bridge Generations, span 13 different topics. They include basic background information, such as where someone was born, as well as more abstract inquiries, such as how someone conceives of their identity, what they believe in, and what they’ve noticed about the passage of time. Specificity is key, so after asking a relative about the home they grew up in, follow up with requests for details: What did their windows look out onto? What did they hear when they woke up in the morning? When you ask for descriptions of an elder’s childhood home and the neighborhoods they roamed around, you’ll hear stories that place you in a rich sensory world you knew little about.