OMG, Thanksgiving is a week from tomorrow and families across the nation will be getting together for all the turkey, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, pies, pies and more pies with lots and lots of Cool Whip. Football fans and parade watchers will clash unless there are more than one huge flat screen in the house and kids will develop and perpetuate those all important relationships with cousins. Mothers and grandmothers will pass along secret recipes, sisters will join each other in the kitchen to wash dishes, brothers will pound each other on the backs in greeting and an American tradition continues. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, the family.
Family Historians, RED ALERT, RED ALERT, RED ALERT. It is the PERFECT day of the year to corner those elusive relatives who won’t answer your emails, snail mails or phone calls with those all important pieces of information that you’ve been drooling to get your hands on. Now don’t get me wrong. None of my relatives would act like that. Yeah, right! My relatives run like hell when they see me approaching, but that’s another story.
As the family historian, you have to arm yourself with all the necessary tools to get the data that will push your research forward. Someday, maybe not in your lifetime, but someday your descendents will applaud your perseverance.
First, I would print up copies of a small questionnaire, asking for the basics. Print enough copies for everyone even if you think you have all their pertinent information. No one likes to be left out. Here’s a few questions I would ask.
Name: Full name, all of them, spelled correctly and including maiden name
Place of Birth: If their place of birth such as county, state or country changed since they were born (hey, it happens), make sure to ask what that was. The county I live in now didn’t exist until about 50 years ago and the county where my Virginia folks were born was part of another county when some of them were born. This can cause enormous confusion when you are trying to get statistical data.
Date of Birth: Come on Aunt Mary, no one really cares if you were born in 1942 or 1949. God knows the real date and anyway, you’ll get social security sooner if you tell the truth. Big bonus.
Mother’s name, place of birth and date of birth: Please, please, please ask for maiden names. Names and data on siblings both living and dead. It wasn’t until I started getting cemetery information that I found out my mother had a sister named Helen who died when she was ten years old. A shocker to me.
Father’s name, place of birth and date of birth: And the names of any siblings, living or dead. All those huge families way back when usually had a baby or two that did not reach the age of majority. It’s always good to have those names to fill out all those leaves on the tree.
Grandparents information is they know it. When families get together and do this together, they start talking, telling family stores and what one doesn’t remember, another one might.
Include plenty of space for a family story or two if the relatives remember any. Put a line on your questionnaire for them to note if they have any family photographs that you could copy. Be the trustworthy person who they believe would return their pictures in the same condition that they gave them.
Buy a dozen or so cute pencils or pens to give out. Tacky I know, but hey, whatever works.
Make Up A Game: Questions about the family that not all of them would know the answers to. Competition is good and a small prize for the person knowing the largest number of correct answers would be fun.
Make sure you take your tape recorder, camera and plenty of batteries. Candid photos make the best rather than formal, posed ones and when you get home, please identify the people in the pictures. You all know why.
That’s probably about all you’ll get out of them in one sitting. Anything that feels like a chore will not endear you to the folks. You will probably not get a ton of information but there may be one or two tidbits that you didn’t know that will add to your process.
And remember, Christmas is coming. You might get another shot at them if they invite you.