Learning Your Family's History: 10 Questions to Ask Your Grandparents by John Shallman
Who wouldn’t want to live history? To go back in time for just a day – or three – to feel the joy of victory and relief palpable in the air in Times Square on V-E Day, listen to Frank Sinatra crooning about the world he had on a string to Tommy Dorsey’s amazing horns or watch Cassius Clay shock the world by knocking out Sonny Liston? The bad new is, we haven’t found a way to actually travel to the past with time-warping technology (although my bet is on Elon Musk to figure out the mechanics of that project). The good news is, you already have an invaluable link to a bygone era, no wormhole or DeLorean necessary: grandparents. If you are lucky enough to have living grandparents – or great-aunts and great-uncles, elderly parents, even elderly friends – you have exclusive access to living history.
Photo: September 5, 1909, Mary and Jake Majefski, 30Seconds contributor Donna John’s great-grandparents
The older folks in your life are vast reservoirs of incredible wisdom, earned from simply surviving the not-so-distant past. Each of them have firsthand accounts of those trying circumstances and historic events you’ve heard of – or read in textbooks or looked up on Wikipedia – but thought you’d never experience yourself. However, when you ask any or all of these questions to your grandparents and allow yourself to imagine life as it was in their shoes, you are taking one giant step into their lived history – a history that has far more to do with you than you might think.
Here are the 10 questions to make this conversation unforgettable:
1. What is your earliest childhood memory?
This will tell you a lot about the world they were born into. Maybe your grandpa remembers seeing German submarines spying off the Jersey coast during WWII, as just a little boy; maybe your grandma recalls her parents arguing in Russian about groceries at the height of the Great Depression as a toddler; and maybe your grandparents can’t recall anything at all before the peace and love they found at Woodstock. Whatever that earliest memory may be, it will certainly be illuminating.
2. What did society look like growing up, and what were the big moral questions being asked?
Just as we are living through an historic crisis that will alter the course of history, so too did your grandparents. The Great Depression, World Wars, assassinations, the Civil Rights Movement, technological advances – they each lived through historic shifts in the fabric of society and lived through the changes, with roles to play and difficult decisions to make. What were those roles and decisions? How did they shape the world-views they hold today both politically and economically?
3. What were your parents’ names and what were they like?
Our parents had parents, who had parents with parents… How far back can we go? What were they all like? And while we’re on the subject…
4. Are there any traits – good, bad, physical or psychological – that run in our family?
It may be your sea blue eyes or a fiery temperament; it could be a passion for singing, a penchant for the drink or a particularly excitable stomach. Every family has shared traits, one of many ways we are connected to the people who came before us. Your grandparents’ insight into the past may be loaded with insight into yourself.
5. Which places in the world have the most significance to you, and why?
As the Beatles’ song goes, “There are places I’ll remember/ All my life, though some have changed…” Everyone has places with particular significance, changed or unchanged by the passage of time. What are your grandparents’?
6. Of all the hardships in your life, what was the most challenging obstacle you’ve faced, and how did you get through it?
What were the life-changing moments of your grandparents’ lives? How did the past prepare them for the often frightening present? Sometimes we have to look at our parents’ and grandparents’ lives as lessons. How can their past experiences help us get through today’s crises?
7. Is there anything you wish you could have done, or done differently?
It’s nearly impossible to live a life without regret, and our regrets inform our choices and our values. Again, this is a teaching moment – listen closely. In that same vein…
8. What are the hopes you have for your family?
The dreams we have of our own sometimes become the dreams we hold for our children. What is it that your grandparents hope for you?
9. What has brought you the most joy in your life?
Explore their passions, projects, skills and stories. Celebrate their lives by reliving their favorite moments.
10. Do we have any family heirlooms, photographs, artwork, letters, diaries or manuscripts? Are there any stories behind them?
While listening to your grandparents’ recollections is precious, there is no substitute for a real time account of those experiences. I was lucky. I discovered a 100-year old autobiography written by my grandfather who was a revolutionary in Russia exiled to Siberia by the last Czar of Russia. I never met my grandfather, but his extraordinary life was so vividly documented that I had to write a book about the impact his story had on my life and the lives of every member of my family.
The true story, Return From Siberia, documents an extraordinary time of political upheaval in Russia and Europe just prior to World War I, while also drawing parallels in current day American politics and the current philosophical and ideological debates about immigration, Democratic Socialism and Capitalism. Beyond the deep social, political and philosophical themes, I found romance, adventure, betrayal, suspense and the struggles of families trying to find the American Dream – yesterday and today.
Now, I realize an interview with older relatives takes more time than depositing saliva into a test tube and sending it off to some white coats. People around the world happily drop $99 to learn more about who they really are – countries of origin or ethnic mix. But that’s just biochemistry and geography. It will tell you where you’re from but it won’t tell you who you are.
You get that from the stories of your parents and grandparents and those before them. It’s the triumphs and the tragedies. It’s the courage and perseverance in the face of insurmountable challenges. It’s the magical romances and adventures. You won’t find that in a laboratory. You can get that if you just ask questions and listen. And you’ll learn everything about who you really are and your own limitless potential.
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