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Does Genealogy Begin at Home?

Does Genealogy Begin at Home?

When did you discover that you’d been bitten by the genealogy bug?

Did you have a grandmother or grandfather who took you on trips to visit older relatives or to visit ancestral places?  Maybe your parents were proud of their heritage and instilled a free-form family history in you…

My journey was a fortunate one. My parents owned an apartment building on Damen Avenue in Chicago – between Waveland Avenue and Addison Street – for Cubs fans, this means that you were blocks away, directly behind Wrigley Field!  The building was originally owned by my great grandfather, but when he died, my father bought the building from the family.  He offered apartments to family members at reasonable rents and in return, I was immersed in my multicultural heritage.  My full name is Leslie Renee Catherine (Gignac) Drewitz and I am German, French, Hungarian, Scots-Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch, English, Irish and Scottish – whew!; so I’ve had many avenues to explore and many opportunities to make friends across the world.

My mother’s maternal grandmother – who lived with my grandparents in the apartment above ours -  was in her early seventies when I was a little girl.  It was in their apartment that I learned the value of family heritage.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was given a priceless gift!  My great grandmother’s siblings would visit often and they would reminisce about their childhoods; their parents and grandparents; the homes that they had lived in; and all manner of stories – some not fit for little ears!    But the first lesson that I learned was to be very quiet.  This meant not asking for a piece of that coffee cake from that awesome German bakery down the street (you’ll never know how I suffered through that…), learning how to suppress a sneeze, not taking a bathroom break and of course – never EVER asking a question.  In other words, I never interrupted.  By following these rules, I was assured stories that would make me laugh, cry and wonder…

Now, I work at a suburban Chicago public library and I am fortunate enough to oversee the Genealogy Club there.  I am instructor, lecturer and mentor of all things genealogy within this club.  There are many things that I repeat over and over – such as cite your sources and stay organized – but the one thing that I stress time and again is, ‘When doing an Oral History Interview, never EVER interrupt!’  I usually get a perplexed look and am asked why?  I mean, the purpose of interviewing is to INTERVIEW, right?  Well, that’s partially right…

Consider this.  If you have ever conducted and interview of a family member, how many stories do you think you have missed because you interrupted?  Probably a few…  In a successful interview, you should come away with stories – in which you hadn’t prepared questions for.

Please take this tip…

When interviewing someone, let them talk.  And talk.  And talk…  After all, that’s why we bring extra paper and pencils, tapes and memory sticks to an interview – to be prepared.  You can always edit out repetition or stories not related to your project; but you will never recapture a story that was never told.  I have found that by remaining quiet – letting people talk – one story will invariably lead to another and maybe another.  Sometimes, you hit the genealogical jackpot!

My technique?

Ask a question and let it go where it may.  The only time you should speak is to answer a direct question – like, ‘What was her name again?‘ Wait for the interviewee to stop and look at you expectantly before you ask your next question.  This technique will guarantee you  success every time!

About LDrewitz

Leslie (Gignac) Drewitz (PLCGS) is a graduate of the National Institute of Genealogical Studies, with a Professional Learning Certificate in Genealogical Studies - Librarianship and currently works for a suburban Chicago public library where she oversees the Local History collection; as well as their Genealogy Club, where she teaches and lectures. She also does private contract genealogy. Leslie lives with her husband Michael; her four children, Ellissa, Trevor, Jon and Katie; and their wonder dogs, Harley and Birdie. You can contact Leslie by email, LDrewitz101@gmail.com.

2 comments

  1. There is a great deal of accuracy with your statement. I only found a question arose due to situation I was in one time with elderly kin with early memory loss. She asked I interrupted her if she lost track. She knew she was struggling with this situation. I did get some great stories and many I had orally from her that I wrote out.
    Generally they were short ones so not hard to remember. Wondering if that was the right thing. It seemed to be at the time about ten years ago.

    • Thanks for your comment, Susi! Because I used to work with geriatric patients, I am familiar with this situation. Here is what I would do in a situation such as this:

      Because memory loss in itself can be of varying degrees, I would let the person keep going as they may until they pause – then I would remind them of the original question. When you do this, you are losing nothing but some time – but what would you lose in not hearing the story that may come of the conversation going in another direction?

      I think you did well. Your instincts told you that editing is a normal part of any interview and you took the chance. Bravo!

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