Tidbits on Collecting Life Histories

Tidbits from the Sandwich Generation #15, Asking Simple Questions can get Olympic- Sized Results…

“Collecting family stories not only benefits the senior-storyteller, but can add to the richness of their relationship with their family members and caregivers,” commented Emily Newman of the Orlando Senior Help Desk. I am living proof of the previous statement, as it took me almost 50 years to uncover an Olympic-sized story that brought my maternal late-grandfather to life.

As my Grandfather Irving passed before I was born, I never developed concrete images of he who was during his lifetime. I knew that he and my mother were close, and that despite being a lawyer, he “sold shirts for a living”. With everyone growing older, I realized there was no time like the present to learn about the past.

Collecting life stories can be as easy as asking a few simple questions. Recording these stories so they can be passed on can be done in a variety of ways. As a former writing teacher, I often recommend the use of a voice recorder. Numerous voice recorders can be downloaded as a free app on your cell phone. Tape recorders are still available at some stores, for those who are not as comfortable with apps.

When spending time with a senior relative or friend, ask a simple question like, “Tell me about an experience during the Great Depression.” Then, just let the senior talk as the voice recorder collects the history.

Afterwards, play back the recording and transcribe their story. Now, you have a first chapter of living history in the senior’s own words! Involving more family members deepens the connection. Ask a child or grand-child to help with the typing process.

Nancy Bland (pictured with Emily Newman above) of TenderCare, a Winter Park home care service, notes that collecting life stories can strengthen bonds beyond family members. She encourages caregivers to ask their senior clients questions about their pasts to help to get them know them better. Bland comments, “Seniors have so much to share, and learning about what they have experienced can help caregivers anticipate and understand their current needs. In most cases the client opens right up, and has a lot to say. They were just waiting for someone to ask the right questions.”

In my own case, I was having lunch with my mother and sister, when my sister asked, “Tell us something we don’t know about your childhood.” My mother went on to share a few new stories about her father. I learned that earlier in his life, my grandfather owned a Chicago community newspaper (which was an “aha moment” for me as a writer). More interesting to you, is what she next shared.

My mom commented, “When I was about eight years old, Jesse Owens (yes, the Olympic gold medalist and American hero), came over for dinner. Though the meal took place almost 70 years ago, my mom remembered Mr. Owens’ kindness, and that he was complimentary of my grandmother’s cooking. She explained my grandfather had worked for a Chicago department store, and that Jesse Owens was one of their spokesmen.

When I got home, I “Googled” the now- defunct store name, and there was Jesse Owens featured in an ad. Additionally, I discovered the store owner had a history of philanthropy, and was a donor to many local causes. Once again, I searched my grandfather’s name along with the store name and found a photo of my grandfather (featured on the left), as a store manager, accepting an award on behalf of the company. The picture was for sale for $9 from an historic image site. On a whim, I bought it.

I had been expecting a copy, but when the envelope arrived, a somewhat bent but original photo from 1955, (with the original clipping from the Chicago Sun-Times attached to the back) was enclosed.

At least 30 years had passed since I had seen a picture of my grandfather, but suddenly there he was, looking very real to me . . . As I took in the photo of my bespectacled grandfather (pictured), memories of earlier photos and stories shared by my mother came back to mind.

So, get started collecting family stories by asking the first question, you never know what kind of images you’ll get in return.

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