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Advice & More November 2015

Thanksgiving Idea That will Capture Your History and Your Heart

By Teresa Ambord

Suppose the youngsters in your family (or you) don’t know how to initiate an interview or what to ask. It’s not hard, and actually most people seem to be good at it, says Isay. Writing… now that’s hard for many of us. But talking is doable.

Will your family be together this Thanksgiving? How many generations? Most of us will have some elder members at the table — or maybe you yourself are the elder. Whether or not the youngsters appreciate it, many older parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and others have wisdom that only comes from a whole lot of living.

And someday, it will be the last Thanksgiving with those loved ones. One man has an idea for capturing some of the wisdom, wit, and charm (even the crankiness) of our elders before the opportunity slips away.


Connections Can Happen and You Can Help

David Isay is a radio producer who came up with an idea families can use to get their elderly relatives talking, and capture family history in the process. His idea is called “The Great Thanksgiving Listen.” Some teachers, especially history teachers, are using his idea as the basis for an assignment over Thanksgiving break. The task is for young people to interview an older relative, and record the conversation.

Thanks to the app created by Isay, capturing the voice of your elders forever is easy. The app is called StoryCorps and can be downloaded free onto a smartphone or other device. As phone-centric as young people are, this should be a natural for them. Isay says the recordings can even be uploaded to the Library of Congress, and can become part of an archive at the American Folklife Center. Rather than getting tossed in the trash, this is a school assignment that will last for generations, said Isay.

In an interview with Yahoo News, he said young people doing these interviews can “know that their great-great-great-great-great–grandkids are going to get to eavesdrop on this conversation someday and get to understand where they come from, who their ancestors were.”

Imagine making this an annual tradition, he said, bringing the family closer as a way to preserve the wisdom of their elders. Kids have the opportunity to hear stories from the Depression era, and several wars, but the really important thing is that the generations are talking.

Of course, your family may not include youngsters. But anybody can take this on, using the StoryCorps app or any recording device.

In the last years of my Aunt Dorothy’s life I sat with her for hours, listening to the stories that I’d heard so many times. Now that she’s gone, I’d love to hear her voice again. Unfortunately as is often the case, I didn’t know her time was almost over, and I did not record the conversations, such as the memories of being the oldest sibling and only girl, in a family of five kids.

One day when I visited her at the nursing home, Aunt Dorothy was showing me a handheld mirror, which she later gave to me. As she looked at it, she stopped and asked if she’d told me how she’d protected my dad from the older, bigger brothers. Of course I said I hadn’t heard the story so she’d tell it again.

“I’d be sitting and combing my hair at my dressing table,” she’d say. “The dressing table had a cloth skirt around it. Suddenly in the mirror I’d see Johnny running up behind me, scared. He’d say, ‘Hide me Dorothy! They’re after me!’ I didn’t say a word, but I’d move the cloth skirt and he’d crawl under there and hide till the coast was clear.”

That simple story is precious to me, and I remember it well. If only I could hear it again in her own voice.


Preserving History

Suppose your elder relative is less talkative than my Aunt Dorothy. Or more likely, suppose the youngsters in your family (or you) don’t know how to initiate an interview or what to ask. It’s not hard, and actually most people seem to be good at it, says Isay. Writing… now that’s hard for many of us. But talking is doable.

One way to get the ball rolling is to find an interesting photograph or two from many years ago, and ask the person questions about it. Or perhaps you have furniture or other items that have been in the family for a long time that you can use as a springboard to get someone talking. Maybe you’ve heard the stories dozens of times, but you can still ask your senior relative what he or she remembers, and get the story recorded.

Oral history is just as important as written history, perhaps more. And while your relative may not have played a part in national history, personal perspectives are an important part of the fabric of our collective past. That’s why some of the stories recorded on StoryCorps are read, every Friday morning on a radio show called Morning Edition on National Public Radio. The stories are important, but Isay says, they are less important than getting two people to talk, to feel connected, and for the person talking to be heard. If doing an interview like this is taken seriously, you and younger generations of your family may be amazed at what you’ll learn.


How to Prepare for a Family Interview

  • Come up with 10 to 12 questions ahead of time.
  • Don’t talk too much.
  • Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with yes or no.
  • Don’t rush the interview.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Listen quietly. While listening, more questions might occur to you.
  • Stay on topic, but don’t try to force the person you are interviewing to stick to a topic.
  • Don’t make it about you.


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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