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difficulties gathering family history
Old 03-16-2017, 05:04 PM   #1
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difficulties gathering family history

Over the decades as I've witnessed my older relatives gradually passing on, I've been reminded to ask the survivors their recollections of their lives and the world they experienced. For example, WW II was before my time, and I am curious how my family in the states experienced it. I'm thinking they might tell about which family members served, gas rationing, memories of the general mood, etc.

Instead for the most part they tell me very little. When I ask if they feel uncomfortable about sharing memories they report not, but at best they only speak in generalities, for example, "During the war I was in high school," or "There was no TV in those days." If instead of open questions I ask specifics, they usually shrug, offer scant information, then change the subject. Otherwise these are people who are normally conversant and not suffering from memory problems.

I'm wondering if it's just my family lacks story-teller and history-minded types, or whether this is common. As a result I have very little feel for what life was like for my ancestors before the middle 20th century. Though books and TV documentaries can supply information they lack the personal connection. Maybe I'm asking poor questions?
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Old 03-16-2017, 05:09 PM   #2
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Perhaps begin by asking them to tell you about the good memories they have from their childhood, the 'devilish' things they got up to, the stuff they did and never got caught......there are things that people never forget....and the object is to start them talking.
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Old 03-16-2017, 05:17 PM   #3
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No, I think it's probably common.
I used to ask my mother about family history and got very little out of her. She was an extremely intelligent, educated woman, but grew up in another time.

When I would ask things about her parents, for example, I always got the response "Oh, we weren't allowed to ask our parents questions like that."

Basically, it was an era when "children were meant to be seen and not heard."
As a result, I learned more from online research than I ever learned from my mother. I would sometimes try to confirm those facts with her, but never with any real success.

On my father's side it was even worse. His parents grew up (in Illinois) speaking different dialects (High German and Low German) and worked out a compromise dialect between them so they could converse freely without the kids understanding any of it. So as one of the younger kids, he didn't get to even hear any family stories.

I've asked other friends about this and have found it's quite usual. In those days, questioning your parents about anything was simply not done.
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Old 03-16-2017, 05:21 PM   #4
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Perhaps begin by asking them to tell you about the good memories they have from their childhood, the 'devilish' things they got up to, the stuff they did and never got caught......there are things that people never forget....and the object is to start them talking.
I have done this with my parents. It does work. My DF wouldn't talk much about his childhood. I asked him about how his older brothers got into trouble (or mostly got Dad in trouble) A smile and a laugh and he started to talk about the camping trip, the Halloween where he was accused of tipping over outhouses etc. This got him talking for about an hour. I learned more about him in that hour than in all other conversations I had with him to date.
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Old 03-16-2017, 05:25 PM   #5
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My parents born in 1917, me much later in '57. They never talked much about that time either. My siblings were older than me, born in 40, 44, 48. The war was seldom talked about, DF wasn't allowed to serve as he had a critical job (or whatever the term was, he hated he couldn't go).

One year my parents came to KC and we went through the Truman Museum. OM, they went back to the days! Many of the questions I had about that time were answered.

It was an amazing time and I have always been humbled by the sacrifice that millions made.

One of the many stories they brought up was the rationing of cooking fat. My DMs older sister and husband always saved bacon fat for popcorn. DM said that was popular during the time.

A greater appreciation of that time can be seen from the European view as well.
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Old 03-16-2017, 05:38 PM   #6
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My family has well documented family history. My father was in WWII and a son of the Depression.

When my father was 16 years old, Grandma Brown (who lived with my grandmother) died, and she lived through a major Civil War battle as a 20 year old. She would talk of the hard lives they lived occupied by The Yankees--and she she hated those Northern soldiers until the day she died.

We also had a great great grandfather that was the colonel of the 48th Tennessee militia and he got them captured in the Battle of Dover. They were in a brig for a year and about starved to death.

It's just so nice to have family history. It's also nice to have some prominent people in our ancestry that were pretty flamboyant.
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Old 03-16-2017, 05:41 PM   #7
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I think it's a generational thing. My parents and their parents were from restrained Germanic stock. Moreover they were not nostalgic. For many of that generation life wasn't easy. I do think you can frame your questions to get better responses. Just asking, tell me about your childhood, might not get much. But pointing to photos and asking about cousin Jim or what the dog's name was or how they liked that automobile might spark conversation. Or specific questions about such things as sports or politics. I had a great uncle that still got riled up talking about FDR, as if the election were yesterday!
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Old 03-16-2017, 05:48 PM   #8
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My parents did not like to talk about their childhood and young adulthood and it seemed to make them sad so you learned not to mention it. Both grew up very poor during the Great Depression and had bad experiences during WWII. Occasionally we kids could get our dad to tell us some stories about the war but he had to be in the mood. And they had little to say about their older family members or family history. But I am close to another family where their parents could talk your ear off on this stuff and both wrote small biographies of their lives.
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Old 03-16-2017, 06:03 PM   #9
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When our kids were in grade school they had to interview grandparents about their childhood for a school assignment. They asked specific questions like "did you walk to school" or "what was your favorite toy," not "tell me about your childhood."

So it helps to be specific. When I was in college I asked my mother about where she got a gorgeous silk quilted robe I had seen her wearing since my early childhood and she told me a former fiance gave it to her when they were in the Navy during WWII. I was soooo surprised to learn this!
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Old 03-16-2017, 06:26 PM   #10
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When I went back for my mother's funeral in 2015, on the way back from the cemetery, my niece handed me a CD. Much to my surprise, it was an interview with my mom and dad! Dad died in 2003, so it obviously was before that. They talked about may things, like how they met, and my dad finishing the house I grew up in.
The only thing that puzzles me is why she waited all those years. The only thing I can think of is that she gave it to me as a remembrance of my mom.
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Old 03-16-2017, 06:45 PM   #11
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My DF was very much like that. He was in WWII and Korea but never spoke about either. I know he never saw combat so that wasn't it. A few years ago I stumbled across a photograph of him in the local paper with a high school class saying how he told them all about it. He never even told me about speaking to the kids.

Just not very open with the family, I guess.
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Old 03-16-2017, 07:02 PM   #12
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I had to do a family tree for a college course. My grandmother had an extensive one for her side and gave it to me. But as I was digging deeper, I had some questions that my grandmother was uncomfortable to answer.

There are some things that our older relatives do not want to share with us, even if we don't find them to be a big deal.
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Old 03-16-2017, 07:26 PM   #13
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Check around and see if letters still exist (folks communicated that way until phone calls got cheap) You might check with siblings to see if they have letters also. But for names etc the LDS family history site is a good place to start with census records. which are now public thru 1930. (1890 got burned up). There are several libraries in the US that specialize in genealogy one in Houston and one in Fort Wayne In for example.
The first goal is to try to find when folks came to the us which can include finding naturalization records. Once you find out where folks lived you can also investigate local history to get some idea of forces shaping their lives.
Now if you are lucky at a library you might find an ancestor whose history has been published, I did that and found an ancestor that came to MA in 1630.
Many of my ancestors were german and I found out about the persecution of Germans in the US 1917-1918. One great grandfather came over as a child (up the Mississippi in 1861 to In which was not a great idea, but a demonstration of how slow news traveled back then. The ship left Germany in Feb and at the time the news in Europe was likley of the US in very early 1861. They arrived in New Orleans in may when things in the US had gone to hell in a handbasket at least as far as traveling up the river) So my Great Grandfather never applied for citizenship and in 1917 a list of folks from Germany who had never applied for citizenship was printed in the paper and his door was painted yellow. One of my great uncles felt in a letter that the reason he did not make officer rank in the army was this.
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Old 03-16-2017, 08:35 PM   #14
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When our kids were in grade school they had to interview grandparents about their childhood for a school assignment. They asked specific questions like "did you walk to school" or "what was your favorite toy," not "tell me about your childhood."

So it helps to be specific. ...
Agree. People tend to not respond so well to open ended questions, though it sounds like OP has tried. Maybe keep going on different subjects until something clicks?

There are only a few of the previous generation left in our family - this has me thinking, I need to ask some of these questions. The ones about rationing in WWII are good. I mean, that's something that's hard to picture today. Of course, I do recall hearing about cheats back then as well.

Holy Cow - that does remind me of a story DM told me years ago - she worked at a Woolworth's during WWII and said the Fire Marshall would come through from time to time, and confiscate all the nylon (silk?) stockings. Claimed they were a fire hazard, and had to go. I doubt anyone was fooled, but I guess there was nothing they could do, or risk getting shut down?

ETA: Guess it was nylon, more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nylon_riots

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Old 03-16-2017, 09:01 PM   #15
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Agree. People tend to not respond so well to open ended questions, though it sounds like OP has tried. Maybe keep going on different subjects until something clicks?

There are only a few of the previous generation left in our family - this has me thinking, I need to ask some of these questions. The ones about rationing in WWII are good. I mean, that's something that's hard to picture today. Of course, I do recall hearing about cheats back then as well.

Holy Cow - that does remind me of a story DM told me years ago - she worked at a Woolworth's during WWII and said the Fire Marshall would come through from time to time, and confiscate all the nylon (silk?) stockings. Claimed they were a fire hazard, and had to go. I doubt anyone was fooled, but I guess there was nothing they could do, or risk getting shut down?

ETA: Guess it was nylon, more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nylon_riots

-ERD50
Note that as far as some things like rationing you can find out about it by reading newspapers and magazines of the time. It also helps to do that to understand what the environment ancestors lived in. One example is to look at newspapers. In the county where my dad grew up in 1860 (long before my dad great great grandparents time) there were 2 newspapers 1 republican and one democrat explicitly and they both had slants on stories appropriate to their political leanings.
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Old 03-16-2017, 09:12 PM   #16
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The direct questions are good. We learned quite a bit from my Uncle's tales of his experiences during WWII. My dad had no idea what his brother actually did. Heck his wife of 60 years didn't know all his experiences.

Someone mentioned old letters they're great. We also got a lot information by going through old photos with my parents.

The stories of rationing are good, better if family can put a personal touch on the experiences. Tales of taking the bumpers from the family car take on new meaning.
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Old 03-16-2017, 09:24 PM   #17
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... In the county where my dad grew up in 1860 (long before my dad great great grandparents time) there were 2 newspapers 1 republican and one democrat explicitly and they both had slants on stories appropriate to their political leanings.
Hah! I was still pretty young when I learned which of my relatives were Democrat and which were Republican. Around Chicago back then, the R's read the Chicago Tribune (a broadsheet), and the D's read the Sun Times (tabloid format). Pretty much true today as well. My Aunt tried to get away with telling the R's in the family that she only read the Sun Times because it was easier to read the tabloid format while riding the El.

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Old 03-17-2017, 12:33 AM   #18
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I think it's common for older relatives to clam up when asked about things of the past. Not always, you might find that one relative who will open up. That would be your best bet, is to find someone like that. If not, then one needs to become a sort of genealogical detective. Obituaries, census records, and sometimes newspaper items will help answer ones questions about the family background. Sometimes the church , if they were a member, might have some information you are seeking. When my back was up against the wall, I would find an older relative and write them. Sometimes it works. You can find married names of the women in obituaries of other known relatives.
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Old 03-17-2017, 04:36 AM   #19
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I think it's common for older relatives to clam up when asked about things of the past.
I presume that water boarding of recalcitrants is considered inappropriate within a family context?
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Old 03-17-2017, 05:46 AM   #20
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Never really sought anything from parents, did glean some information. Like my father still liking butter (margarine) and brown sugar sandwiches, a depression era staple. Also put brown sugar on rice. Huh? I never got any WWII stories because he worked on Manhattan Project in Princeton. All he ever knew is he was working on boron in some fashion, really wasn't aware of the specific purpose.

Last week started long delayed cleaning of attic. Found several boxes of kids' memorabilia that I'm distributing. The very interesting one was DW's great aunt's box of diaries and photo albums from 20's and 30's, most of which surrounded her expat years in Japan pre-WWII. IIRC having returned to states before Pearl Harbor her many photo albums were requested by our government for war planning purposes. That box is a keeper; the diaries in particular describe romantic pursuits in a time far different than today. You can almost hear the sound track of those decades playing as you read them.

As to querying folks of their recollections, I'm not sure how much I could produce from my teen/20's years, say, pertaining to Viet Nam which I wasn't invited to thanks to a high draft number. I recall the huge political divide, the protests, etc, but thanks to video and historic TV not sure I could add much. As to my kids asking what sort of hijinks I got into, I am definitely not going there.
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