I was visiting my 88-year-old mother Ginny one rainy afternoon and was doing her laundry. As I waited for two loads to go through the washer and dryer, and the storm continued outside, I decided to ask her an old question I had always been curious about. I was familiar with her childhood and being raised by two artists and their travels, but she had never really talked about her early 20’s. I had no idea about her college years, her degree or her first job afterwards. Maybe today was the day.
“I know you went away to college mom, but I’m confused on how long you were there?” I began.
“Yes, I started at Briarcliff (a women’s college in Briarcliff Manor, New York) because it was well-known for its arts program and that was my interest” she began. She muted the television.
“I remember taking A LOT of art classes. But Briarcliff was only a two-year school, so I had to return home and finish at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio) where my parents taught and my tuition was free.”
“In fact” she continued, “I had to take so many of the classes I avoided at Briarcliff like math and chemistry, that I ended up with a BS degree” she said laughing. “My mother never got over how a daughter interested in art with both parents also in art could get a BS instead of a BA. It was a total mystery to her.”
I was impressed with this information. I knew none of these details. I pursued the conversation.
“Ok. So you graduate with a BS degree. What was the next thing you did?” I asked.
“Well, I went to work for The NEA – the Newspaper Enterprise Association.” She shared. “I colored in their comic strips. I remember having a desk and looking out large windows. It was downtown.”
I was floored. It was fascinating stuff.
“How long did you work there? Did you like it? What was next for you?” I forged ahead.
“Well, let’s see. I worked there for two years. I did like it. Your dad drove me to work sometimes. You know, we were dating and I left because we were getting married.”
This was the early 1950’s, so I understood that marriage instead of work was common. They married in 1954.
At one point, it was necessary for her to return to work. This is where I have some memories, but they are vague so it seemed like the perfect moment in time to clarify.
“Mom, what was the name of the place where you helped seniors with art projects?”
“Oh yes” she replied “that was at the Margaret Wagner Nursing Home. I was the Arts Coordinator. The residents had weekly classes to make things like tiled ashtrays or bowls or working with yarn to make bags for their wheelchairs; there were all types of projects they created that they could take home and actually use.”
“But there was a new design store that opened nearby” she shared “and I changed jobs to work there. Design was my first love. It was a large, two-level store called “Design Corner” that was one of the first to carry Marimekko fabric and they hung it in the two-story windows. It was stunning.”
“I remember” I laughed. “You got me a job there!! I remember ironing and hanging cotton shirts shipped from India and Bali and other exotic places.” (This was in the 1970’s before other design stores got into the Cleveland market like Crate and Barrel.)
It was wonderful filling in the blanks that day, and I immediately made notes on my phone to capture it all. But this conversation did inspire me to take a look online about more formal “oral history” projects. Some family caregivers may be interested in preserving a parent’s memories in a different way.
The Oral History Association defines this type of project as “the systematic collection of a person’s testimony about their experiences. In a project, a subject recalls events to an interviewer, who records them to create a first-hand account.”
I located several oral history tips created by Willa Baum, The founder of professional oral history in the United States. Here are several:
- An interview is not a dialogue. The whole point of the interview is to get the narrator to tell her story. Limit your own remarks to a few pleasantries to break the ice, then brief questions to guide her along.
- Ask questions that require more of an answer than “yes” or “no.” Start with “why,” “how,” “where,” “what kind of …” Instead of “Was Henry Miller a good boss?” ask “What did the cowhands think of Henry Miller as a boss?”
- Ask one question at a time. Sometimes interviewers ask a series of questions all at once. Probably the narrator will answer only the first or last one. You will catch this kind of questioning when you listen through the tape after the session, and you can avoid it the next time.
- Ask brief questions. We all know the irrepressible speech-maker who, when questions are called for at the end of a lecture, gets up and asks five-minute questions. It is unlikely that the narrator is so dull that it takes more than a sentence or two for her to understand the question.
- Start with questions that are not controversial; save the delicate questions, if there are any, until you have become better acquainted. A good place to begin is with the narrator’s youth and background.
- Don’t let periods of silence fluster you. Give your narrator a chance to think of what she wants to add before you hustle her along with the next question. Relax, write a few words on your notepad. The sure sign of a beginning interviewer is a tape where every brief pause signals the next question.
- Don’t worry if your questions are not as beautifully phrased as you would like them to be for posterity. A few fumbled questions will help put your narrator at ease as she realizes that you are not perfect and she need not worry if she isn’t either. It is not necessary to practice fumbling a few questions; most of us are nervous enough to do that naturally.
- Don’t interrupt a good story because you have thought of a question, or because your narrator is straying from the planned outline. If the information is pertinent, let her go on, but jot down your questions on your notepad so you will remember to ask it later.
- If your narrator does stray into subjects that are not pertinent (the most common problems are to follow some family member’s children or to get into a series of family medical problems), try to pull her back as quickly as possible. “Before we move on, I’d like to find out how the closing of the mine in 1935 affected your family’s finances. Do you remember that?”
- It is often hard for a narrator to describe people. An easy way to begin is to ask her to describe the person’s appearance. From there, the narrator is more likely to move into character description.
In fact, back in 1977, I had amateurishly executed my own oral history project. My history teacher requested that we find someone who had lived through the Great Depression and interview them. I had immediately chosen my grandfather – my mother’s father.
In 1929, he was married and a young artist. He explained that people in the arts struggled in the late 20’s/early 30’s because wealthy clients were not purchasing paintings or requesting commissions. To make money, he worked in advertising and sketched illustrations for department stores. He was well-respected and could always line up the next job.
Given his sense of humor, he shared one story that day that has stuck with me:
Melanie: Were you able to afford a car during the Depression?”
Billy: “Yes. We owned a 1927 Ford Runabout. In those days, it wasn’t unusual to learn how to drive with the salesman. So, there I was taking my first lesson with the dealer and I was having problems with stalling. “
“Finally” he continued “I got it. But a new problem started. I couldn’t stop it! Every time I put my foot on the brake, the car jerked violently. I’ll always remember a man, walking along the side of the road watching me with interest. He finally stopped and faced me yelling “hey mister, get a horse!!”
My grandfather laughed and laughed retelling that tale and now I’ll always have that memory.
I have found that collecting pieces of a parent or family member’s past is invaluable. And there’s a hidden bonus. It brings great joy to the parent knowing that their life is forever “on the record.”