I envisioned us sitting in his quiet home office, with my smart phone camera on a tripod, using a microphone and asking him questions. I even thought I would recruit my two sons, ages 17 and 21, to ask questions I fed to them.
This did not happen.
Fortunately, Jim is not reserved about telling stories. So, when he began to hold forth from his lounge chair, while we were all sitting in their small living room watching TV one morning, I knew I had to seize the moment.
Fortunately I had brought, as back up, a digital audio recorder. No time to set up a camera on the tripod. I just set the digital audio recorder on the table by Jim, asked “Is it OK if I record this?” and hit record. I did ask to mute the TV.
Jim is not reserved about telling stories. So I just guided the conversation with some questions – “So you lived in the Philippines as a boy?” My husband followed up with his own questions about his paternal grandfather, who was Navy chaplain during World War II.
My boys were sitting on the couch listening. (OK, they did peek at their smart phones occasionally, but they stayed there on the couch!) Sometimes, I’d draw their attention to an event in the story – “Hey, guys, you studied the Cold War in school, right? When your dad was a baby, his whole family was stationed at an Army base in Germany during the Berlin Crisis!”
Their grandmother chimed in that her parents visited them and were on the last bus to leave East Berlin before “The Wall” closed in the early 1960s. Their granddad’s stories of being in the Army in Germany during the Cold War brought home the reality of how our own family lived through history.
No, I didn’t have the “perfect” setting for an oral history interview. I did a have a backup plan with my audio recorder. So, I improvised and seized the moment.
The result: two recorded hours of amazing stories, plus the added reward of my sons being on hand to listen.
Recording family stories sometimes requires improvising. So, don’t wait for perfect. Just get it done.
My next step? I’ll combine one of Jim’s recorded stories with some photographs I scanned to make a short, ancestor story video. Because it IS short, I’ll get it done and the other grandkids will watch it, so they can also benefit from their family history.
Photo credit: Lee, Russell, photographer. Improvised henhouse of sharecroppers, Southeast Missouri Farms. May, 1938. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa1997023001/PP/. (Accessed January 10, 2017.)