It’s important to preserve our grandparents’ memories while we (and they) still have access to them. When it comes time to sit down with your loved one, the following list of questions can help eliminate any lulls in conversation. Use it, as well as your own questions to jog your grandparents’ memories and record those wonderful stories of long ago childhoods. Note: This list can work for your parents too—or you can interview yourself.
As you read through the questions or ask them, don’t hurry. Indulge your own and your interviewee’s recall as you go back down memory lane together.
Be sure to note any other stories that come to mind. Do some answers bring back sensory memories, such as the feel of scratchy clothing or the weight of quilts on the bed? The smells around the house? Write these down too! Be sure to also read How to Start an Oral History Tradition.
Questions to Jog Your Grandparents’ Memories
- Did you have a nick name growing up? How did you earn it? Did you like it?
- Growing up, who was your most likely partner in crime (friend, cousin, or sibling)?
- Were your parents strict? How did they compare to other parents of the time period?
- What types of clothing did you wear as a child?
- How many siblings did you have? What was your position in the birth order?
- Which sibling were you most likely to argue with?
- Which parent (or grandparent) was the disciplinarian?
- What’s the worst trouble you ever got in?
- What were your family members like? Use five words to describe each one’s personalities.
- Did you share a room with siblings? Which ones?
- Who cooked for your family?
- What was your favorite food growing up? Which one did you dislike the most?
- Did the home have indoor plumbing? A phone? A television?
- What did your home and/or property smell like?
- What was your favorite time of year growing up? Why?
- What languages were spoken in your childhood home?
- Who were your childhood heroes?
- How did your family celebrate birthdays?
- What was your most memorable birthday?
- Did your family move during your childhood? How many times?
- When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- What was the most important lesson a family member ever taught you?
- What was the most important lesson a teacher ever taught you?
- What was the most memorable (good or bad) trip your family took?
- What kind of cars did your family own? Did they have air-conditioning?
- What was the most historic event you witnessed as a young person?
- Did your family attend a church or synagogue or mosque growing up? If so, which one? What do you remember about it?
- What pets, if any, did your family own? What were their names?
- Were there other animals on the property? Did you take care of any of them?
- What schools did you go to? Were you a good student?
- Were you popular with the other kids? Were you shy or outgoing?
- What teachers did you like? Dislike?
- Did you play sports as a kid? Which ones? Were you athletic?
- What’s the scariest moment you remember?
- What’s the funniest family memory you can think of? (Multiple answers are good too!)
- What was your favorite childhood book?
- Did your family practice any traditions (food, religious, ethnic, or other) that were different than those practiced by your friends and neighbors?
I’m sure you could add questions of your own. What questions were particularly useful in understanding your grandparent or grandparents’ background? Which were the most helpful in eliciting your grandparents’ memories? What advice would you give an interviewer?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.