Written by Cheryl Fallstead • Photos from author’s family albums
My life was changed because of a story I wrote for Las Cruces magazine. If that sounds rather dramatic, it was. The piece was about researching your family roots, and as part of my due diligence, I took the plunge and did a home DNA test, thinking mostly of determining if I was as Irish and Scottish as I always thought. I checked the box that said people who were a DNA match could contact me and didn’t give it another thought, until I got a phone call some months later from someone who was a “close relative” match. Long story short, I discovered through the test that I have an amazing younger sister and our family tree has an entirely new branch!
My DNA test, and therefore the discovery of my sister, happened after both my parents had passed away. My new sibling, Debbi Brienen, then, never got to meet her biological father, but thanks to our brother Mike McCandless’ forethought, she still got to know him. When our dad, Roger, was undergoing treatment for lung cancer, Mike interviewed him, using his iPhone to record the conversation. Several years later, that recording helped Debbi get to know her father, an unexpected and special gift for her and her children.
“I’ve listened to the interview with our dad many times, so even though I never got to meet him in person, I feel an amazing connection with him through the interview, videos, and pictures,” Debbi said. Our dad had a big personality and Debbi got a feeling from listening to him tell his own life story and watching videos of him, including his big win on Wheel of Fortune where he clowned around with Pat Sajak. She teared up remembering that Mike presented her a copy of the interview the very first time they met, welcoming her to the family in a very personal way. I asked my brother about his experience. “It was something I wanted to do before Dad was battling cancer, but that escalated the timeline,” he said. “I wanted to capture his colorful story and our family history firsthand while I could, in his own words.” Looking back on the experience several years later, Mike adds, “Now that both my parents have passed, there are countless times I find myself saying, ‘Mom/Dad would know that.’ Even after the interview, I find myself saying that often. But having the framework and history of Dad’s life leading into mine, it gives me a sense of connection and understanding. I have listened to the two-plus hour tape a few times since the recording and each time I gain a new understanding of our history.”
Recording family stories is a wonderful way for future generations to be able to read, hear, or see ancestors tell about their lives. My great grandmother Sarah Moon wrote her own story about living in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado in the days of Kit Carson, her neighbor according to family lore. Her daughter — my grandmother — was interviewed by a college student doing a project, providing another layer of rich family history. (Don’t worry: Debbi got copies of those, too!) While I was hunkered down at home during the COVID-19 outbreak pondering this story, I thought about others who are either spending more time with family than usual, or isolated from them. Either way, for many of us, the reality that we need to cherish family while we can may be the impetus to record their stories. Fortunately, it’s something that can be done in person, over the phone, on a video chat, by email, or in a letter. In researching this story, I found a wealth of online sources for people wanting to embark on this journey. Some include helpful tips, like preparing open-ended questions in advance that require more than yes-or-no answers and remembering to let the person you are interviewing tell the story with minimal interruptions. Smile and nod rather than interjecting your own memories. Other sources offer lists of questions you can ask.
You can start with basics like confirming where they were born and move to cherished childhood memories, military service, college days, and more. If you don’t have genealogical records, be sure to ask about earlier generations, including where and when they were born. Questions that lead to a favorite family story will be treasured, but so will those that bring an unexpected gem to the surface. Think about what you want to discuss in advance and maybe even bring photos or mementos to prompt memories. Do you have family photo albums with no names or journaling to go with the photos to explain who is in them and what they were doing? Take the time now to ask about the stories that go with the photos and record the answers. Although I spent a lot of time with my parents in their last years, there are still things I wish I had thought to ask them and photo albums we could have reviewed. Those stories are now lost. The way you record the interview is up to you and the subject. Some people are happy to be recorded or even let you create a video record.
Others may rather have you just write notes, but that will likely lead to gaps in the story unless you know shorthand! Respect the boundaries set by the person you are interviewing. If a memory is too painful to pursue, let it go. While you may want to hear your grandpa’s war stories, he may not want to tell them. That’s his choice. Mike offers some tips based on his experience interviewing our dad. “Have a rough plan for what you hope to accomplish with the project. A basic outline will help keep the story on track and avoid gaps. Make copies to preserve your work and distribute it to other family members . . . especially the kids who will likely take an interest in their family story when they get older.” Speaking of kids, while we tend to think of preserving the lives of elders, consider interviewing children, too, to capture their memories at various stages of life. Ask about their best friends, favorite foods and games, or something they really enjoy doing. They’ll love revisiting it when they’re older. Once you gather the stories, what do you do with them? You can create an album or photo book using digital sources like Shutterfly, which can be printed for anyone in the family who wants one. You can post stories, photos, and even videos to genealogy sites like Ancestry.com as part of that person’s life story.
Provide copies digitally or as DVDs or CDs for other family members to enjoy. It’s up to you how to preserve and share the story, but the important thing is to record it while you can. Stories can also be shared with a wider audience. National Public Radio listeners may be familiar with StoryCorps, a national effort to record oral histories, which are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. These are interviews between two people for 40 minutes which are usually completed when the StoryCorps van visits a community. They can now be conducted using a smartphone app or through the new StoryCorps Connect platform, which allows interviews to be conducted and recorded using video conference technology. The StoryCorps. org website tells more about how the recordings are created and archived, as well as providing a list of suggested questions for the interview.