Over the Holidays, Try Talking to Your Relatives Like an Anthropologist

Yves here. I spent the last two and a half years of my mother’s life sitting every evening in the same room with her for hours, yet elicited precious little new information about her early years. Part of it was she was very introverted and did not initiate conversation unless she wanted something. But part of it was that she had repeatedly signaled that she did not want to think much about her childhood. She mentioned, for instance, that she was terrified of her parents and most of the stories she told were only a little bit better than Little Match Girl. She said her happiest times were when she retreated to her room with some cheese and crackers to read books (the Roquefort of her childhood was allegedly way better than what you can get now, even from vendors like New York City’s famed Zabars). She also had almost no extended family, and I barely had any contact with them, so it wasn’t as if could arbitrage information gleaned from her relatives.

An approach like the one below, to get at the more general features of her youth, would have been enlightening in and of itself and would probably have pried open more personal tidbits. Too late now. Perhaps some of you can do a better job than I did.

By Elizabeth Keating, Professor of Anthropology, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts. Originally published at The Conversation

How is it possible to spend so much time with your parents and grandparents and not really know them?

This question has puzzled me as an anthropologist. It’s especially relevant for the holiday season, when millions of people travel to spend time with their families.

When my parents were alive, I traveled long distances to be with them. We had the usual conversations: what the kids were doing, how the job was going, aches and pains. It wasn’t until after my parents died, though, that I wondered whether I really knew them in a deep, rich and nuanced way. And I realized that I’d never asked them about the formative periods of their lives, their childhoods and teenage years.

What had I missed? How had this happened?

In fact, I had interviewed my mother a few years before her death. But I only asked her about other relatives – people I was curious about because my father’s job had taken us to places away from the rest of the family. I based my questions for my mother on the bit of information I already had, to build a family tree. You might say I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I decided to research the kinds of questions that would have elicited from my mother things about her life that I had no clue about and that now remain hidden and lost forever. I interviewed older people to develop questions that would paint a vivid picture of a person’s life as a child and teenager. I wanted details that would help me see the world that had influenced the person they became.

So I used my training as an anthropologist to ask the type of questions an anthropologist would ask when trying to understand a way of life or culture they know little about. Anthropologists want to see the world from another person’s point of view, through a new lens. The answers I got from older people opened whole new worlds for me.

Probing the Mundane

One secret to having a deep conversation with your elders when you’re together over the holidays is to set aside your customary role. Forget, for the space of the interview, about your role as their grandchild or child, niece or nephew, and think like an anthropologist.

Most genealogical inquiries concentrate on the big life events like births, deaths and marriages, or building a family tree.

But anthropologists want to know about ordinary life: interactions with neighbors, how the passage of time was experienced, objects that were important to them, what children were afraid of, what courtship practices were like, parenting styles and more.

When you ask about social life, you’ll get descriptions that paint a picture of what it was like to be a child figuring things out back then – when, for instance, as one relative explained, “Unless you were told to go and say hello to Grandma, you never just, as a child, spoke to adults.”

On the other hand, when you ask about important objects, you’ll hear about those tangible things that pass from generation to generation in your family that are vessels of value. These ordinary things can convey stories about family life, just as this person who grew up in the U.K. describes:

“Mum used to say to me that the best part of the day was me coming home from school, coming in the back door and sitting on the stool in the kitchen and just talking, a mother-daughter thing. I’ve still got that stool from the kitchen. My father built it in evening classes. My children remember sitting on the stool in the kitchen, too, while Grandma was baking, passing time, drinking cups of tea and eating shortbread.”

My interview subject, now a grandparent herself, had a hard time understanding the fascination young people have with the social worlds contained in their phones.

But on the topic of phones, I found there can also be unexpected points of connection across generations. When I asked one grandparent about the home she grew up in, as she was visualizing her home in rural South Dakota, she suddenly remembered the telephone they had, a “party line” phone, which was common in the U.S. back then.

All the families in the area shared one phone line, and you were supposed to only pick up the phone when you heard your family’s special ring – a certain number of rings. But as she told it, her mother’s connection to the community was greatly expanded even then by telephone technology:

“We had a phone, and it was on a party line. And you know, we would have our ring, and of course, you’d hear the other rings too. And then sometimes, my mom would sneak it and lift up the receiver to see what was going on.”

‘All You Have To Do Is Ask’

I enjoyed the interviews with older people so much that I gave my students at the University of Texas at Austin the assignment to interview their grandparents. They ended up having exhilarating, interesting and generation-bridging conversations.

Their experiences, along with mine, led me to write a guide for people wanting to learn more about their parents’ and grandparents’ early lives, to protect a part of family history that is precious and easily lost.

Grandparents are often lonely and feel no one listens or takes what they have to say seriously. I found out that this can be because many of us don’t know how to start a conversation that gives them a chance to talk about the vast knowledge and experience they have.

By taking the position of an anthropologist, my students were able to step out of their familiar frame of reference and see the world as older generations did. One student even told the class that after interviewing her grandmother, she wished she could have been a young person in her grandmother’s time.

Often, the tales of “ordinary” life relayed to my students by their older relatives seemed anything but ordinary. They included going to schools segregated by race, women needing a man to accompany them in order to be allowed into a pub or restaurant, and leaving school in the sixth grade to work on the family farm.

Time and again, grandparents said some version of “no one’s asked me these questions before.”

When I was first developing the right questions to ask older family members, I asked one of my research participants to interview her elderly mother about daily life when she was a child. Toward the end of that interview, she said to her mother, “I never knew this stuff before.”

In response, her 92-year-old mother said, “All you have to do is just ask.”

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  1. Joe Well

    I just want to say thank you for this post and the other one about Salvador Luria. I have been kind of stressed out and having something that is both positive and yet very intelligent (not “feel good” fluff) is just what I needed. Also, thank you for sharing the personal story. It is amazing how long the anger and mixed emotions from childhood last, especially for the generation that grew up before the revolution in talking about things like that.

    I had to do ethnographic interviews with family members for a college class and we recorded them on old-fashioned tapes to be able to turn in to the professor. Now I wonder if I got mine back and they’re in a box somewhere. Anyway, I can confirm that you can get new information from relatives (and get them to be more accurate) if you frame it as an interview and tell them you want to know the facts about the past, even though I had already talked with my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and parents a lot about the old days.

  2. KLG

    Great piece! My maternal grandmother was born in 1910 (d.1996), my grandfather in 1904 (d. 1962). They were married in 1933. At the age of 17 she took the train from her small hometown in South Georgia to Atlanta to train as a beautician. He was a barber. During the Depression they lived in West Palm Beach, where she did hair at The Breakers and he drove a cab between West Palm Beach and Palm Beach. And that is all I know about their experience of the Great Depression. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s they were building contractors in my hometown who built houses for anyone who asked, which was unusual in the Jim Crow South at that time. I should have asked questions when I had the chance!

  3. Bill

    I am very interested in the way people lived when there was a lot less technology and fossil fuel energy. What was the day’s routine and life of the farmer – almost minute by minute or hour by hour – in rural and small town Britain especially. I am sure there must be books or journals with this. I am unable to ask elderly relatives as I don’t have any left and I think we will be needing to relearn this knowledge before my kids get to my age.

    1. Anonymous

      sure there must be books or journals with this. I am unable to ask elderly relatives as I don’t have any left and I think we will be needing to relearn this knowledge before my kids get to my age.

      Reply ↓

      1. anahuna

        Yes, a wonderful topic.

        Reading the responses, I begin to realize how much I learned from my grandfather, not so much verbally — he died when I was 15, and I don’t recall ever formulating questions for him — but by, for instance, following him out to the barn when he went to collect the eggs in the morning. Hearing him roar, as he plowed the small strip of a garden behind a team of horses, “Whoa, Babe!” “Whoa, Ruth!” (His horses were seldom more than half-broke.) Using the outhouse behind the log cabin he had built himself (no indoor plumbing until 1938, and he still preferred the outhouse). The sight of the old icebox on the back porch. Crossing the wooden bridge over the creek (he built that too and had to rebuild when flash floods tore it away,). Jouncing around in the back of his pickup truck on the way to pick up the mail at the little post office in the nearest town a couple of miles away, where he sat and talked for a while with all comers, and with unflagging gusto and curiosity.

        I don’t know if it was that particular pickup or another, a new one anyway at the time, about which he roared delightedly after his yearly moose-hunting trip to Maine, “I drove her 500 miles, and I only rolled her over once!”

        None of this is to slight my grandmother, who lived in that log cabin and cooked on the woodstove and never for a moment complained. Originally a Scot from the province of Quebec (where he had been born as well), later a governess in Boston, while he was a lumberjack in Maine, she would have had much to tell, if I had ever thought to ask.

        All this up Ute Pass, some miles from Colorado Springs.

    2. Roland

      A very good book to read is Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, which is part autobiography, part social history. Published in the 1930’s, it covers the time of her childhood and youth, from the 1870’s to 1890’s, in rural Oxfordshire. The book covers an enormous range of subject matter concerning the everyday lives of many kinds of people, mostly the small peasantry, domestic servants, and independent craftsmen. It contains a wealth of detail on meals, clothing, chores, shopping, prices, wages, schooling, and generally just how things worked. Much of the information is derived from a girlhood spent as a virtual anthropologist in her own society, as well from long, retrospective conversations with her mother.

      Thompson is often frank, never prudish, and almost completely free of tendency. As a result, her book always seems fresh, direct, and personable. She does not flinch from issues such as domestic violence, homosexuality, or alcoholism. Her book is like having a talk with a most sensible Englishwoman, who has decided to be forthright in the way the English sometimes have, when they set aside their customary reserve. However, it assumes a British reader who is familiar with the overall history of the generation before the Great War. Nowadays, with the internet to consult, no reference she makes should remain obscure to anyone willing to do an occasional search.

    1. Cristobal

      Wonderful post Yves. It is very sad how little we know of our parents lives, our grandparents, even sometimes our significant others. We should not waste the little time we have left with them. This is a propicious time of year for these talks.

      In response to Bill, my brother lives in rural mid-Missouri and haunts the junk stores there for weird books. Apparently around the turn of the last century there was a lot of little tiny publishing houses, or self publishing, that resulted in very obscure titles like: Ruben, His Book, and Jim the Wonder Dog, and much more. They are wonderful to read – not much plot usually, but lots of atmosphere! Every time I visit him I find more of this kind of book lying around.

      1. Bill

        Thank you. I haunt the junk stores for old tools and other things which I enjoy trying to restore to use. I will also look for the sort of books you have suggested. Thanks,

  4. jodoy7256

    I am very interested in the way people lived when there was a lot less technology and fossil fuel energy. What was the day’s routine and life of the farmer – almost minute by minute or hour by hour – in rural and small town Britain especially. I am sure there must be books or journals with this. I am unable to ask elderly relatives as I don’t have any left and I think we will be needing to relearn this knowledge before my kids get to my age.

  5. Tom Pfotzer

    Your emotional range and self-awareness are remarkable, maybe even eclipse your intellect, Yves. That intro was a work of art.

    And art is intended to provoke, enable, elicit emotional reactions, right?

    My story: Dad was, as were most men of his generation, somewhat detached from his emotional being, except when emotions obtruded themselves, and due to lack of emotional intelligence and the resultant paucity of coping mechanisms, resulted in not-well-modulated, and certainly not well-explained behaviors. Dad was a black box who communicated his love via exposition and example. Discussions didn’t happen, and certainly not any sort of negotiating. It was sparse landscape; Dad had many, many extraordinary traits, but interactions with kids wasn’t where he allocated himself.

    On the other hand, Mom and I had extensive dialog on many subjects, and her formative years, courting by my father, and early professional life were a big part of it. A good bit of my personality is drawn from my Mom – genetics and socialization – and those talks were a good bit of the transmission vehicle, along with, of course, the setting of examples.

    More broadly, there’s a flip-side to the “kids don’t ask about us” phenomenon, though, that I would like to offer up for consideration. There comes a time in the relationship when the parent-child construct runs out of gas. What’s to be explored and discussed has become well-trod land; it’s exhausted its utility.

    The question comes “where to now?”. Do parents want to create a new frontier of exploration and growth in conjunction with their kids, or are they ready to just move on to new (non-kid-centric) horizons, or back into the better-known turf of old haunts?

    For me, the answer was “back to old haunts”. Now, of course, you can imagine just how tedious it must been to be my parent, so that’s the likely explanation for my case.

    But for those of you that actually were interesting and fun kids, did your parents seek ways to build new frontiers, or did you and your parents elect to stay in the well-trod swim lanes, and play out the clock?

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I wonder whether careful use of this technique of “questioning like an anthropologist” might prove helpful as a preface to engaging in discussions with people holding vastly different points of view and perspectives — whether old or young. Just as the younger generations know little about the lives of those of older generations — many among the older generations know far too little about the lives of those of younger generations. For example, I believe many of the adults of my generation really do not understand how difficult life is for the younger generations. The 1970s were a very different time than the 2000s.

  7. Carolinian

    I think a lot of us only have the broad strokes of the family saga because that’s the way our parents wanted it. And I’m ok with that even if I wish I knew more. They had us as a way of looking forward, not back–to create our own saga or the lack of it. And so we must.

  8. David in Santa Cruz

    Perhaps it’s because I was the only child of parents in their mid-30’s, but there was a lot of this sort of talk in my family. It was only as an adult that I realized how little my parents actually knew about their own families.

    For example, growing up in California my mother idolized her often absent father, but she appears to have never known that she had two half-siblings living in England. I found out about her brother and sister a decade and a half after her death, reading the digitized ledgers from Ellis Island.

    My father’s family came from an isolated archipelago in the mid-Atlantic known for the inbreeding and ignorance of its people, who struggled daily for their very survival. My father thought that his family were a bunch of superstitious rubes and had little interest in them or in passing-on knowledge about them.

    Still, better to get relatives talking about themselves than to try to have a dinner-table conversation about why the right-wing 2014 Euro-Maidan coup was just as illegitimate as the right-wing 2021 January 6 sedition/insurrection plot…

  9. Wukchumni

    I’ll be hanging out with mom for 3 days soon and i’ll try and utilize my newfound skills as per this article, as her memory is remarkable…

    When QEII passed away and I was hitting her up for some scintilla, she remembered being given union jack flags to wave at the royals as they drove by on the street in Calgary, and Princess Elizabeth was a year younger than her, and she related of meeting a royal about her age in a meet and greet on the 1939 Royal Tour, the future Queen.

  10. meadows

    I had the good fortune to be living with my maternal grandparents while in college in 1972. My family was broken up and the g-parents were pretty crushed about it all and Grampa also had severe Parkinsons. We had great conversations about everything and anything. Plus I became his muscle, he needed me physically.

    When Mom moved into their home to care for him, wow our conversations stopped! She even wanted me to move out… she said my questions upset him. Some people do not embrace true dialogue.

  11. Cat Burglar

    My grandmother had mastered the technique of eavesdropping on party line calls to the neighbors. My mother said people could hear an audible click when the listener removed the receiver too fast — on the crank phone, my grandmother held down the receiver first, then put the phone to her ear, blocked the mouthpiece to cut out any ambient noise, and only then lightly allowed the receiver to connect.

    Just east of Mount Hood National Forest in the party-line days — which ended sometime in the 1960s — nobody ever expected their phone calls were private. When Nora Connolly from the other side of the Deschutes would call my grandmother and speak in Irish, my grandmother would always reply as Bearla, in English — people might think they were gossiping if she replied in Irish!

  12. lyman alpha blob

    It can be tough finding out. My own grandmother was like your mother, Yves, and died without divulging a lot to my mother and aunt that they would have liked to know. From the little I do know, she had a tough childhood, partly spent in an orphanage. I believe she was also present when her little brother drowned on the beach as a toddler. Then there was the picture of her in her younger years captioned with the name “Trixie” and all that might imply. Saw that while she was still alive but never dared to ask where the nickname was from.

    On the other side of the family, I only found out about some of my grandfather’s history after he passed. Again, it was a tough childhood and there were things he wouldn’t have wanted to talk about. We did find an old family photo taken in the early 20th century before my grandfather was even born among his belongings that no one in my generation had ever seen before. In the center was my great great grandfather, surrounded by a couple dozen descendants, with a rather crazed look in his eye, even for those old photos were a lot of people look a little nutty. We also found his obituary from the local paper where it noted that he was a fine gentleman when he was in his right mind. You don’t see that type of thing mentioned in obituaries today!

  13. Helena Cobban

    My mother died when I was eight and had been very sick for years before that, so I grew up without a mom and with a lot of deeply repressed anger about her having died on us like that. (I know. Not her fault.) That anger manifested in lots of anger toward my dad, which coexisted with some fondness for several decades.

    When I was in my early forties I thought I had to resolve/end all this anger somehow. So I used my skills as a journalist to sit down with my dad and start to ask him questions, on the pretext (not just a pretext) that I wanted to help him write his memoirs. His memories came flooding out and flooding out! He was so ready to talk about the past and had been living a very lonely life for 33 years.

    I ended up knowing more about him, and feeling closer to him by far, than anyone else did… And yes, his memoir did later get published (by my spouse and me.)

    Bottom line: As EK wrote, it is great to use your professional skills to open a much-needed conversation with older relatives in a calm way that is not freighted by old family angers and resentments. Those things can be such a trap.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Well done, Helena.

      I believe in transformative engagement one’s well-defended/camouflaged daemons. Not “demons”, but “daemons”. There’s a significant difference. One’s malignant, the other is an interior force/agency with “a life of it’s own”, and an entity that can be negotiated with. Understood, even.

      The fact that you took it on, sought it out, gave it an objective voice, and ultimately made a durable peace with it is quite a wonderful achievement, and maybe an even better adventure.

  14. Paul Collis

    Hi Yves,
    I’ve been reading your blog for more than a year. Originally found from following John Helmer.
    I’m a pretty private type of a guy, so held back from ever posting.

    This particular post of yours, and I count myself as an amateur anthropologist, premised with anger against current anthropology in the same vein as my withheld angst with current philosophy, as these two fields of human psyche both fail the smell test of pushing the boundaries of their fields, for stating the obvious, their current critic, rather than expose.

    This post of yours however, has hit a nerve, and a positive pulsating one at that.
    My girlfriends Belgian Grandmother is from a down on their current fortune noble Belgium family. When I’ve been in her company, she’s 92 going on 40, I’ve always been marvelled by how easy it is to switch on her on switch.
    Family members regale her with their antics and asking if she remembers this recent event or that, and she mumbles an uninterested reply. (recalling the recent, is boring)
    Where as, when I unashamedly ask her, what she thought of the Nazis, her first memory of seeing them in her worn torn village, she comes alive. She can recount not only the memory in general, but minute detail of specific days. As though she were narrating a colour video of experiences. Once the switch is thrown, one memory promotes the next. So much so, that from a previous evenings in-depth conversation, mostly listening, the following mornings breakfast is an excited reenactment for her of a time long passed.

    Anthropology, as much as philosophy, which both fields are based upon reflection should be in their element.
    This is an epochrial time. A post (mid Pandemic) change in humanity.
    We have so much to learn from not just past events, but these fast passed evolving force major events that scare our so called leaders into a sense of despair and ineffectualness.
    We have no leaders of merit, only reactionary egotists, sound bite merchants of look at me, I did something, take a photo.

    We are fast moving, despairingly, blindly into a world wide catastrophic war. More amazingly so, for no other reason than, past events are so well catalogued are about us, not those that gave their life’s for us and the reasons why!
    we should be ashamed to let the morons in charge, lead us into this lemmings over the edge position.

    I strongly urge all, to engage their elders in sharing with us the past horrifying events of war days gone, to hear first hand the peril and true fear we are stating down the barrel of, should it be repeated. This maybe the only way we can avoid the almost now inevitable human catastrophe we are facing.

    1. Alex Cox

      You are right – but for a lot of the WW2 generation, war at home was exhilarating. My dear mother started out a pacifist, but by 1945 she was wearing a uniform, driving trucks for the US Army in Wales. She turned one truck upside down, but got in no trouble: there was a war on.

      So yes – the oldsters’ recollections may surprise us.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I do hope you are wrong in your fear that we are fast and blindly wandering “into a world wide catastrophic war.” I am more inclined to view the Ukraine situation as a means for flowing large sums of u.s. treasure money into the purses of the MIC and others even less deserving. As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out in his recent book and past interviews with Paul Jay, the Russians have their own MIC that requires feeding. I nurture a jaded faith that profits and cash flows will triumph over Neocon lunacies.

      I do not believe the morons in charge really can lead the greater part of us over the edge like lemmings — but I fear we could be dragged along for the ride should insanity prevail.

      1. Paul Collis

        Thanks Jeremy,

        Love him or loathe him, it’s worth watching or listening to Henry Kissinger’s interviews this year.
        His point is salient, that we can easily accidentally find ourselves drawn into a no going back situation, where the outcomes are world wide catastrophe.
        The geopolitics is so wide, so murky, and so self interested, it’s all about me, and not us.
        The pandemic should have brought us closer together as a species, not pulled us apart, destroyed friendships, tracing partners.
        We are supposed to be pursuing peace after the horrendous last world wars. We are all compelled to interact with our elders that are still with us that remember those times. There is no glory of war, only horror.

  15. bassmule

    My great-great grandmother poisoned her husband. Story made the New York Times Dec 21, 1886, just in time for Christmas. Great-Grandma testified at the trial. My maternal grandfather was a drunk who habitually went on a bender starting Christmas Eve, returning a few weeks into January. He sent my mother (10 years old at the time) to live with neighbors so he could rent out her room. My paternal grandfather grew up in Pray, Montana and worked for the Chicago & Northwestern. A man of very few words. Like, most of the time, none. My father’s sister was a junkie, died in an asylum at 66. The idea of talking to them as an anthropologist…let’s just say they’re all dead now. I’m okay, but this is just not my favorite holiday.

      1. bassmule

        Feces occurs. And it was a long time ago. I just stay off social media on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas Day.

  16. Eureka Springs

    Just yesterday I was thinking along these lines and marveling at what has been lost. A friend of mine, her family name (not Smith) still on the map in north east OK, Crazy “Smith” Hollow. Knowing my friend it explains SO much. Ha! But we have no idea despite many descendants still living in the area.

    I’m fortunate in that I knew three of my great grandparents. I remember one thing above all else they had in common was much of their time spent preparing and putting up food. All were comfortable middle class by the time I came along yet they would do this before daybreak until middle evening. I’m surprised we didn’t all shell peas or pick pecans at their funerals. One great grandmother I knew very well (1901 – 1995), lived with through much of my childhood and visited often until she passed in my mid thirties. Yet I never knew so much as her husbands first name or even a hint of why he was never mentioned. She had two sisters and two brothers. I knew the sisters somewhat and never heard much about the brothers except they were the last sheriff and deputy to patrol a rural south Arkansas County on horseback. Her daughter, my grandmother and my father, aunt, uncle, who all grew up with her in the same house never knew or never spoke of it to this day. Over the years I tried delicately to find the magic timing and phrasing of the question to no avail.

  17. Leftcoastindie

    My maternal grandparents must have had a hard childhood – my grandfather on a farm and I have no idea where my grandmother was from – so I remember asking them as a child what it was like when they were kids and they both told me the same thing ” You do not want to know” and that was the end of it.
    My dads mom died when he was 5 year old right at the beginning of the depression and my grandfathers business went under at that time so I know my dad had a rough go of it after that. My grandfather died when I was 9 years old so I have memories of his face but don’t recall anything he said.His sister came over from Scotland to help raise the kids after his wife died and she would talk about her childhood and teenage years back in Scotland when I would ask. The one thing I remember her talking about was during WWI she worked in a bomb factory and how they would put black curtains over the windows at night to make it difficult for the Germans to see where they were bombing. I don’t recall ever hearing about bombing raids in Scotland during WWI so I guess they were doing it just in case.

  18. petal

    Was too afraid to ask grandparents about anything as their lives had been pretty hard and sad/tragic. We knew not to ask them or talk about it. Talk was always kept to the recent and future. Maternal grandmother’s father hanged himself in the barn when she was 6, and they had a hard life. She dropped out of school in 9th grade to help support the family and had daddy issues-she always had to be married. My mother’s father was trapped into marriage by my grandmother(my mother was an unwanted/unplanned pregnancy) and he keeled over when she was 16 and he was abusive and controlling, so lots of baggage there. My grandmother resented my mother and always let her know it in various ways. My father’s parents didn’t want him and farmed him out to his aunts to raise. His mother had been adopted. After going on a genealogy binge these last 2 years, was finally able to track down her original birth information and get the backstory from the adoption record. Her father abandoned her and her mom when she was a few months old and then her mom put her up for adoption at a huge Catholic orphanage in Lackawanna not long after. Used an old newspaper site to track down info about others and found arrests for public drunkenness(a Scottish great grandmother), lawsuits, unpaid bills and debts made public knowledge, bankruptcies which meant the loss of everything they had, etc. Been on a journey to figure out “why things were the way they were” and have been filling in the gaps because there weren’t any stories told, for obvious reasons. I wish we had been able to talk about things like their childhoods and family history, but…

  19. Tom Pfotzer

    These are some magical, vital, visceral, rip-roaring comments.

    As I said, Yves, the intro was art. The torrent follows, with catharsis in a canoe after the floodwaters recede.

  20. Roland

    I was lucky, as a boy, to have many talks with my maternal grandmother, who lived with us for a few years in the late ’70’s.

    Only as a man did I get to know my father, over the course of some cross-country visits I made, at long intervals. One night the conversation turned to the subject of his early teaching career, and there opened a whole new dimension in how we came to understand one another. Gone was the stern paterfamilias of my childhood, and here was someone like an approachable senior colleague, from whom I learned a great deal.

    I was also lucky in my stepfather, who grew up in Saskatchewan during the Depression, and who later became a merchant seaman, soldier, and locomotive engineer. Many years in Alcoholics Anonymous had made him comfortable in talking about anything and everything, with his own life full of stories and observations. Best of all, he wrote his memoirs, which I still keep.

    The grandmother I mentioned used to say that there was something about her face that made strangers want to tell her their whole life’s story, on the briefest acquaintance. I’m a bit like her that way, so over the years I have had many memorable talks with coworkers, neighbours, and fellow travellers. Of course, it is usually easier to confide in those whom you will never again expect to meet, and with whom you have no prior connection.

    Which brings me to the converse: how much of my own life and times have I related to others? The very ordinariness of it all makes it hard to begin, unless prompted. But younger people might not even know what there might be to know, so they can’t even ask. It is far easier for me to talk about the few unusual things and places I have known, than about the actual life of a mere clod.

  21. Heather

    Reading these responses I realize how very very lucky I am. My grandparents on both sides lived into their late eighties and nineties and loved to talk about their early life, and family history going back to Ireland and Scotland. And my mother and father talked about their early life in WW2. My mother and her mother passed away at the age of of 97 and one of my grandfathers was 95. My mother was interviewed several times for oral histories on WW2 memories. I’m 69, but have already been asked questions by one of my grandsons for a family history project when he was in school. I have my grandfather’s memories and stories of his mother, going back to the Civil War. But when I was young I used to pepper him with questions and was rewarded with fascinating family history and stories. It does pay to talk to elders. And my elders were so beloved, I miss them all.

  22. sharron turner

    My maternal grandmother and grandfather were both born in 1889. Her father was a civil war veteran that migrated from Alabama to Texas after the war ended. My lovely grandmother attended college for a short while in 1905 and met and married my grandfather soon after. I was very close to her and she told me wonderful stories of her childhood. In the 5th grade (in her family) you stayed out of school in the spring to follow the chickens to build your own feather mattress. She rode a horse to school started by her relatives. She was an artist, seamstress and farmer, we referred to her as renaissance woman. All in hers was a loving family. My fathers’ family was formal, distant and high strung. The prior 3 generations had at least one suicide. My father was schizoaffective and so often emotionally unavailable. At his mothers’ house children did not speak unless spoken to. My paternal grandmother was more interested in her social standing than nurturing her family. I often feel the Civil War was emotionally damaging for generations for some. I was the kid that sat around and listened to family stories and asked questions. I love all the history I have gathered about my family and need to record it for the next generations.

  23. Mr Robert Christopher

    “We had the usual conversations:” Yes, always in the Present!

    I had those too. I did venture off the piste, but I could tell, as most children can, that it was just that, off piste. And it’s amazing just how little discouragement worked a treat.

    Life was tough for them, before WWII, let alone during and just after, as it will be for us in the near future, though hopefully not as dangerous.

    My uncle didn’t want to talk about being in the Army, when I was three: it was such a shock. But he was probably right: he was in North Africa (1940-4) and then Germany for a year or so. And I hadn’t heard of WWII.

    1. Wukchumni

      My dad was a teenager in Prague when the Nazis came in w/o knocking in 1939 and 20 when festivities abated…

      He NEVER talked about it~

      One day in Prague circa 2000, i’m walking with him and he points to some non-descript wall a few hundred feet away and says:

      ‘That wall was where they publicly executed people, I probably saw hundreds who were lined up and shot, especially after Heydrich was assassinated.’

      Nothing in my sheltered life could have prepared me for that broadside delivered in a just-the-facts tone as we walked by.

  24. mistah charley, ph.d.

    Thanks to Yves for posting this, and all the commenters for sharing their memories. I have decided to send Elizabeth Keating’s book to my mid-20s niece for Christmas. All her grandparents are gone but she still has aunts and uncles whose lived experiences may be of interest.

    As my own age increases and my health declines I feel closer to the ancestors – both the few I knew and the long, long line of all who went before. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? And who is included, and not included, in this “we”?

  25. Candide

    In the spirit of this rich engagement, I must mention the storytelling festivals that occur around the US, and I hope, around the world.
    The mention of party lines with neighbors listening in, has reminded me of some of the funniest accounts anywhere, delivered by Donald Davis. His story of two sisters on an 8-party line, who’d tie up the lines for hours, looks with delight at the experiences our comments have been sharing. Looking up the story I found an audiobook that includes it, whose new price new is $25 and used, $54. I think you’d probably agree ;- ) His story from a child’s perspective, “The Crack of Dawn,” delivers the cross-generational values we’re discussing.
    Exceptional teachers haven’t appeared in today’s discussion. Those stories have been prominent in Davis’s tales.

  26. ddt

    One thing I wanted to do with my 90 year old mother was map our extended family tree. Alas, time and distance delayed this and now my mom’s full blown senility/dementia prohibits it as she’s now forgotten names of people and places. You have to be a sleuth to understand who she’s talking about now. She’s the last of her generation and it makes me sad that the family history has already gone with her sanity. Hope folks do this when they can and at every opportunity rather than put off.

    Happy holidays to all and thank you for this Yves.

  27. Jeremy Grimm

    So far, the discussion has focused on relatives and the loss of family histories. At risk of thread stealing — I want to suggest another large area of potentially lost knowledge that could expire with older generations. The u.s. was once a manufacturing nation. Much of manufacturing is art not science or engineering. The knowledge contained in art holds hidden knowledge of Science and Engineering discovered and mastered through the long exercises of practicing an art. The last members of the generations that worked in manufacturing are dying away, and with them dies much art and numerous mysteries which could have enriched so much of Science and Engineering.

    I am interested in glass — its manufacture and applications. Few if any[?] glassworks remain in the u.s. The ways of making jars and bottles, of glass blowing, of the making of specialty glass, of glass assemblages and lampworking were all a part of the knowledge acquired through the hard work and dedication of generations of master gaffers and master lampworkers. Glass and ceramic engineers and scientists have gathered and mastered some of their knowledge — but so much remains in the realms of the glassmaking and glassworking arts. I fear so much knowledge could be lost. The Glass arts are but one of many areas where hoards of Knowledge are at risk.

    The timely application of the techniques suggested in this post, might enable those of us who care to glean such Knowledge and Wisdom as might so easily be gathered and saved were we to make th efforts. Knowledge and Wisdom are far the most valuable coin to hoard for the future.

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