When it is too late, and it will be someday too soon, Grandma’s stories will have gone with her. The questions you never got around to asking your grandfather will go unanswered. You’ll be left with foggy glimpses, fuzzy recollections and – more than likely – boxes of photos, slides and videotapes without much background to give them context, meaning or narrative.
What did he actually experience during World War II?
Did Grandma really do some modeling?
What was it like living in the South when schools, pools and water fountains were segregated?
Whether it’s Mom, Dad, Nana, Papa or Aunt Lindsay, every family has its keeper of stories, secrets and traditions. Today, it may seem like they’ll be around forever, that you can safely procrastinate. But remember when dubstep seemed like it’d be around forever? Right. Times change. Quickly. And usually when you’re distracted with the illusion of importance.
Suddenly you’re at Mom’s funeral. And Dad’s memories can no longer be untangled from old MASH episodes or the last thing he heard on NPR.
This holiday season, I urge you to consider creating a gift for which your whole family will give thanks. The gift that keeps on giving, much more than a jelly of the month: a permanent recounting of these stories and histories. Your family’s own record, its own documentary. And I’m going to walk you through it.
Start by identifying your subject, the family historian, so to speak. Maybe there’s more than one. All the better. Sometime during the upcoming holidays, ask them to set aside an hour to talk with you. Ask for an hour, but plan for three.
Find a quiet, comfortable, out-of-the way spot. Maybe a guest room or home office. If all else fails, just get in the car and go sit in a Braum’s parking lot. Better yet, go somewhere that brings back memories: the church, an old school or the town park.
Your first goal is to capture your interview with this person. If you can actually shoot this with a camera or two – even if it’s just your phone – you’ll be creating a family heirloom of incalculable value. But if the best you can do is record audio on your phone, that’s exponentially better than nothing.
Your second goal is to help this person forget they’re being recorded. How? Ask questions that make them feel like the expert. Build their confidence. Once they forget about the camera, move into the substantial questions.
Your final goal is to use this interview to find the thread that runs through everything, that gives meaning and purpose to that archive of photos, slides, home movies and keepsakes. You are your family’s documentary director. The archive contains your B-roll. This interview is about to be your A-roll.
A few tips before you begin:
Have a bottle of water, some tissues and a couple of alcoholic drinks of choice handy. If this is person is a smoker, conduct the interview where they can smoke.
Avoid yes/no questions. Stick to the open-ended question setup, such as “Tell me about ____” or “Talk about why _____.”
While moving through your questions, never hesitate to jump down a rabbit hole. When you catch a warm smile, a gleam in the eye or a memory that chokes up your subject, pursue it.
Remember your subject is the subject. Keep the focus on them. You can add your thoughts and memories later. In fact, you don’t need to be on camera at all.
The following list is meant as a guide. Delete, edit, replace and add as you like. As long as it gets the wheels turning, it’s doing its job.
Introduce yourself to me. What’s your full name? And what is today’s date?
Who are your immediate family members? And extended family members?
If your life was a book, what color would the cover be? Why?
What was life like when you were young?
Did you get into trouble?
What were your favorite things growing up?
What did you want to be when you grew up?
What was school like?
What do you miss most from those days?
How/when did you meet your spouse?
What about them attracted you to them?
How did you woo them?
What was married life like before children?
What was work life like?
How would you summarize your career?
How did kids change things?
How was raising kids different then?
How was it the same?
What sticks out in your memory as important, pivotal times, events or changes?
What heartbreaks have you been through?
What wisdom did you glean from the hard times?
What were the happiest moments of your life?
What were the proudest?
The most difficult?
What was most unexpected?
What hobbies have stuck with you through the years?
What are things that you used to do that you don’t anymore?
What do you wish you had done differently?
What were some of your favorite trips and vacations?
What do you want your funeral to be like?
What are some stories from your life that not even your kids know?
Do you wish you had spent less time and money on some things and more on others? What are they? Why?
What values and traditions do you fear might be lost after you’re gone?
What artists and musicians remained favorites throughout the years?
If your life was a movie, who would direct it?
What bands and songs would appear on the soundtrack?
What would the title be?
When you look back on your life, what lessons or morals do you see?
What do you want people to think of when they remember you?
With any luck, this process will leave you exhausted but inspired. You’ll hear stories you never knew. You’ll look at this person with new eyes, and you’ll want to share it. The good news is you already did the most crucial and time-sensitive part. Now you can learn video editing or just hand it off to your video expert nephew. He’ll have a blast putting this thing together. And your entire family will treasure it.