Capturing Family Oral History

Putting the Leaves on Your Family Tree - Part Two

This could be a fun project for the teenagers in your family or just yourself. The best place to do this would be a family reunion, but if your family lives nearby, it can be easily accomplished. Basically, you will be interviewing the oldest members of your family, asking them to recall what it was like to live in the times that they did. I am going to detail just what you will need to do to put down their memories.


First, you will need a tape recorder or, even better, a video camera. Plan on typing up your interview so that you can have a hard copy. Better to be safe than sorry if something should happen to your tape or video. You might also want to have a pen and paper available to take notes also. This will make a nice gift for others in your family.

You will want to get your subject nice and comfortable and in a chatty mood. This means if you are doing this with an older person, you will want to do your interview in the morning when they are fresh. Get them a fresh cup of coffee or tea or something cold to drink and set down and just talk to them. That is why the tape recorder is so great; you won't miss a word. I am going to include a nice interview format here so you will have a general idea as to some of the questions you might like to ask. Start with their childhood and work your way up. My questions are not in any particular order so you might want to rearrange them to fit your timeline.


  1. What is your favorite color? Food? Hobby? Sports team? Music? How did these things impact your life? (Ask follow up questions when you get your answer. If they were a Yankees fan, ask which game they remember most. If they love to crochet as a hobby, ask them what their most challenging project was? Ask for their favorite recipe or pattern.)

  2. Are you left handed or right handed?

  3. Tell me a story about the games you played when you were a child.

  4. What food can you just not stand and why?

  5. Tell me about your high school graduation?

  6. Did you go to college and if so, what was it like? If not, what kind of education did you get?

  7. Did you live during the Depression and if so, how did you and your family cope?

  8. What was your favorite vacation?

  9. Who was your favorite President and why? How did he inspire you?

  10. What political party are you affiliated with?

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  12. Who are your favorite actress and actor? Why?

  13. Did you or anyone in your family fight in WWII, Korea or Vietnam? How did you feel about that? Tell me a story of your time over there?

  14. If you fought in a war, did you win any medals or awards?

  15. Have you ever met a famous person? Who and did you get to meet with them or was in just a handshake in a crowd sort of thing?

  16. Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? What were you thinking and feeling on this day? On Pearl Harbor Day?

  17. Where were you when Neil Armstrong first walked on the Moon? What were your impressions of that day? When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up? Or 9/11?

  18. Were you a hippie or a flower child? What part of the social upheaval did you bring with you into your adulthood? Or is this a time in your life that you would like to forget?

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  20. What was your career like? Did you like your job? What exactly did you do for a living? (My grandmother was a farmer's wife but worked also in a seed company filling orders. We got her to tell stories of what it was like. She also was a school teacher in a one room schoolhouse, we asked her to tell us stories of what it was like.)

  21. What was it like growing up in the part of the country you are from? Did you like living in the city/country? Tell me about the house you grew up in? Tell me a family story that tells about your house and your family?

  22. What was in like when you first moved away from home?

  23. What was it like when you bought your first home?

  24. What was your social life like as a kid? Did you go to the drive-in movies or the drive- in hamburger joint? What did you do for entertainment? Were you a little hellion or were you the smart studious type?

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  26. Where did you always dream of living or of visiting and why?

  27. What are the most important changes you can see between now and the 1950's. What about the 60's, 70's, 80's or 90's? Ask what they think was the best invention or how they think morals changed during these time periods.)

  28. What was the best car you ever owned? (Ask its color and make and model. Ask why they loved it so much.)

  29. What was your proudest moment? Your hardest moment? Your most embarrassing moment?

  30. Who was your best friend? (Get them to tell you a story about them and ask them why was this friendship important to them? What are their ideas of friendship based on?)

  31. As an adult, what was your social life like? What was your favorite activity and why? (My mom loved to go dancing and won trophies doing it and my dad's idea of a great time was going to Dodger Stadium and watching the game with his friends, they both loved to play bridge.) Tell me a story.

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  33. What was your favorite movie? Why did you like it so much?

  34. Did you and your spouse have a special song? When did he first dedicate it to you or you to him?

  35. How did your spouse propose or did you propose? Was it love at first sight? How did you meet? Did you know right away that this was the person you would spend your life with? Tell me a story about your wedding.

  36. What was your favorite pet? Why was it important to you? Tell me a story about you and your pet.

  37. What was it like to raise children in your time frame? How was in different than the way your parents raised you?

  38. What is the one decision that you made that you would change now, if you could?

  39. Who inspired you most in your lifetime? And why?

  40. What is your religion? What does faith mean to you?

  41. Which one of your siblings is your favorite? And why? Tell me a story

  42. Do you have a favorite Aunt or Uncle or Grandparent? Tell me a story

  43. Would you call yourself a liberal or a conservative?

You can add or delete from this list as much as you care too. Depending on their age, some of these questions may have to be modified. You don't want to be asking someone about WWII if they were just a baby or hadn't even been born yet. Start with easy questions about the person themselves. Go slow and be patient. Let them ask you questions about you too. While you are at it, ask your family member is they have any photographs that you could scan or copy. This could really add meat to your final product, plus who wouldn't laugh to see Granddad in his leisure suit. This should be more than enough to get you started. Remember to be considerate of your family member. If there are any questions on my list that they would not like to answer, delete it. You are here to put down a living oral history not unbury old skeletons. You will find that most of these questions will bring about more questions. Be true to the person and write down just what they said.

Now you have completed your tape or video. What comes next? Well, you can make copies of the tapes and pass them on to family, which would be priceless as you have the actual person talking, or you can transcript the material into a written format and pass that along to your family as a written biography of the person that you choose to interview plus you can copy the tape and send it along too. If you have gathered pictures to go along with your interview, you can put them in a photo-editing program and fix red eye problems or put a fancy border around them. Also you can crop the pictures to make them the best that they can be, The mountain in the background is great, but if Aunt Sylvia looks like an ant in the foreground, you just might want to crop it to be able to see her. Sit at your desk and listen carefully to the tape. Type what you hear. You can also drop your text into a publishing program like Microsoft Publisher, which comes with Microsoft Office. Then you can choose a blank document brochure and put it all together using the template. It will have preset places to put your pictures and makes layout easier. When you are done, you can print this out and make a small book out of it by stapling it all together or having it bound at your local copy shop.

About The Author: Debra Frick is a mother of 5 and a grandmother to 7 grandsons. She is a published author and poetress. Born in California, she now lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and many pets. Her hobbies include crocheting, reading, arts and crafts and bargain hunting.

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January 12, 20070 found this helpful

This is truly a wonderful thing to do. Don't forget to ask about your family's nationality, any stories about "the old country," relatives still there, where they lived, if they left any property there (my grandfather left his apartment building to the tenants when he came here). This is all precious information for the genealogist in the family. There's one in each generation.

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January 12, 20071 found this helpful

I did something similar with my mothers parents and my husbands grandmother and is something I will treasure foreever. In my grandparents case, I interviewed both of them separately about growing up, how they met ect. Just little clips at holidays, visits ect. My mother is an only child and the first Christmas after both of them had passed away, my teenage daughter took my videotapes, transferred them to the computer, added a picture slide show and gave the resulting dvd as a gift to her. Imaging not knowing I had saved little mini interviews over several years, and hearing your mother say when asked, what was her most treasured memory and it being the day she first saw her daughter after birth. It turned a holiday which was very hard for all of us into a wonderful memory.

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