As Nadia Oehlsen watched her grandmother grow older, she realized she wanted more memories of her besides photographs. “I wanted to have her voice,” says Oehlsen, a Chicago schoolteacher.
So over the course of one week, Oehlsen and her grandmother sat down together for a few interview sessions, ranging from 45 minutes to a couple of hours. Oehlsen asked the questions, but she let her grandmother guide the conversation: “If there was a question that was off-limits, she knew she didn’t have to answer.”
Oehlsen’s grandmother told her stories that spanned her entire long life, from her earliest memories—looking at her cousin in a baby carriage and listening to her father brew beer in the bathtub—to stories about her job as a bookkeeper for Ma Bell to more profound speculations about what would happen once she finally passed.
Like Oehlsen, many people realize that, as their parents and grandparents age, they don’t know them as well as they wish they did. Maybe they have questions about their parents’ and grandparents’ lives that they’re too shy to ask, whether it’s about an early spouse or sweetheart, the origins of a family quarrel or more details about stories they already know well: How did Grandma feel leaving school as a teenager to work and help the family? How did that experience influence how she raised her own children?
As the founding chair of the Legacy Project, an organization based in Ontario, Canada, that works to build connections through storytelling, Susan V. Bosak helps people ask those questions.
Because these conversations can be tough, the Legacy Project provides tips on its website. But Bosak warns that printing the list and sitting down for a question-and-answer session isn’t the best approach. It’s better to work your questions into regular interactions—she would talk to her own father at night while they ate dinner together—and to tailor the questions to the mood of the conversation or parents’ personalities. Pay attention also to the stories parents tell most often; they may be an indication of how they want to be remembered. Bosak’s father, for instance, told her several times about how he had quit his dream job because he felt the government department he was working for was wasting taxpayers’ money. “The life theme of integrity and standing up for what’s right was important to him,” she says, “and that’s the story he used to communicate that value.”
Your own curiosity may be the best guide. “What do you want to know about your parents?” Bosak asks. “If you’re genuine in your interest, that can often prompt someone to be more open.”
Sometimes, she adds, grandchildren have an easier time asking questions than children do. Bosak believes it’s because there’s comfort in the greater generational distance.
Darby Morhardt, a professor of neurology at Northwestern University who works with Alzheimer’s patients, says that going through old photo albums can be a good way to trigger memories and get stories to start flowing. She also suggests participating in a life story program such as StoryCorps, which tours around the country with mobile sound booths; you can reserve a time to go interview your parent or grandparent, and StoryCorps will record the interview and store it in the Library of Congress. (Some interviews also air on local NPR stations nationwide.) Not only do these programs provide questions to help interviewers get started, they also provide a calm space for talking one-on-one. “It’s important that there aren’t a lot of people throwing questions,” like in the middle of a big family dinner. “It can be confusing.”
Most of all, though, don’t be afraid to ask big questions, or to ask your parents about parts of your childhood that bother you or that you never quite understood. “We all have wounds from our childhood,” Bosak says, “and sometimes those kinds of questions—trying to understand a parent’s motivations or limitations —are the ones we never touch. If we don’t find the courage to dig into them at some point, then they become part of an unfinished legacy, leave a hole in our lives, which in turn affects our own legacy.”
That’s something Nadia Oehlsen discovered during her conversations with her grandmother. “She was always prissy,” Oehlsen says, “always worried about what the neighbors would think. Then I asked her about her dad’s family. She said you could always find her grandfather down at the bar. I realized the reason she was always concerned with what people would think came from her growing up low-income and wanting to be taken seriously.”
Six weeks after their interview sessions, Oehlsen’s grandmother had a stroke that left her with aphasia. “She was still herself,” Oehlsen says, “but could only speak in short sentences. I’m really glad we did it when we could.”