Recording your history

At the end of life, people often want to take the chance to look back at everything they have done – and to make sure their stories will be passed on.

By recording an oral history, you can preserve memories in a person’s own words and voice.

Cell phones and digital cameras have made it easier than ever to record, preserve and share the stories of the people we love.  All you need is a little preparation and the time to have a conversation that spans a lifetime of stories.

Preparing for the interview

After you have set up a time when you and your loved one can be uninterrupted, make a list of questions. You’ll want a mix, from personal and specific questions about life events, such as their best childhood memory, a first date, or first car to questions about how they felt about family life, how they felt about world events or some of the challenges they have faced.

Avoid yes-or-no questions. Instead ask open questions such as, “Tell me about the first house you grew up in” or “How did your family celebrate holidays?”

These questions can help you get started:

  • How did your parents meet?
  • What was your favorite childhood vacation?
  • How did you meet your spouse?
  • Tell me about your wedding day.
  • What were you like in high school?
  • Tell me about your activities and friends.
  • What was your first job? How did you spend your first paycheck?
  • Tell me about some of your favorite movies, songs or TV shows.
  • Who are some of your heroes?

If your family member is nervous about an interview, let them look over the questions ahead of time.

Decide if you are going to record video or audio. If you decide to make a video, back it up with an audio recording and take some still photographs as well.

Conducting your interview

Think of your interview as an opportunity for learning about your family and yourself, not as a history project. You aren’t trying to nail down dates and facts; you want to know more about your loved one’s life. Questions are there to guide you, but they shouldn’t be a rigid structure.

It’s essential to let stories unfold at their own pace. Interrupting may break your loved one’s train of thought, and it could be challenging to get it back on track. If the story veers wildly in another direction, ask a simple question that can get you back to the original story. Or go with it!

Make notes as you talk to help you remember things you may want to ask about later. A person, place, or event mentioned in passing may have a tale of its own.

Be prepared for stories and memories that aren’t happy, as well. They may be difficult to hear. It may be the first time your loved one has felt safe to talk about it. Listen with love and understanding.

Photos are a great way to jog the memory and bring up stories that may otherwise never surface. If you have pictures from their childhood, high school and college years, military service, wedding albums, etc., take time to go through them together. It can also be a chance to identify people and places in unlabeled photos.

Preserving and sharing your loved one’s history

Your family may already have photos, film, videos, or cassette recordings of family stories and events. It’s crucial to create new copies of these archival documents before they physically deteriorate, or their playback technology is obsolete. Many companies can transfer analog recordings to digital formats. Then you can further ensure their survival by uploading them to a cloud or file-sharing website, making them more easily accessible. Creating interviews and albums can be a lot of work, but also a memory in itself. Generations from now, your family’s story will still be heard.