Sample Oral Family History Interviews

Ancestral Profiling
a monthly column by Colleen McHugh

Previous articles discussed the logistics of the successful Oral Family History. This article will focus on showing the difference between two types of interviews: Closed and Open.


A Closed Interview


Interviewer:  Did you live through the Depression, Grandma?

Subject: Yes, we managed to get through.

Interviewer: Did your father manage to hold a job during that time?

Subject: Off and on he’d find something but it never lasted.

Interviewer: What kind of foods did you eat?

Subject: Oh not much, I’ll tell you. Rice and beans still bring me back to that time, even after all these years.

Interviewer: You must have felt lucky being the youngest. You probably got all the  hand-me-downs so I  presume you at least had clothes.

Subject: No, no hand-me-downs for any of us. We had to wear what we had no matter if it fit or not.

Interviewer: Did your parents have a lot of siblings?

Subject: Yes, both my parents came from large families.

Interviewer: How many siblings did your mother have?

Subject: There were 9 all together, so 8.


An Open Interview


Interviewer: Grandma, tell me what it was like to live during the Depression.

Subject: Oh I tell you, it was not easy, especially out in the country.. Dad was always looking for work, and when he’d find a job, he was still sad because he had to make his way into the city. He was always gone, but we at least had some food. It never lasted though; nearly no one could keep a business open during the Great Depression. When he wasn’t working he’d get so depressed. He kept moping how he was such a lousy provider, couldn’t even put rice and beans on the table without having to sacrifice food for himself. The house was never a happy place when dad wasn’t working. Which, as I said, was often (sighs, looks down at her lap).

Interviewer: I can’t imagine going through that, Grandma. I can see now why you prefer to be outside doing things instead of relaxing on the couch!

Subject: (chuckles). Yes, I find the bright outdoors much preferable to any dark interior any day. Dad worked for a farmer before the Depression, and he was always outside  Though we didn’t have much money then, either, he was much happier in those days. After the Depression, when he did find jobs they were typically inside jobs in a shop or factory. Being inside became synonymous with sadness, so ever since I was old enough to take care of myself, I was determined to be out as much as I could. That’s why I’m good at gardening: when your granddad and I finally did get our own home, I practically lived in the flower garden.The flowers, the sunlight, the open air … all things we didn’t see much of during those dark years. They brought hope that I could see every day, no matter what happened with the rest of the world.

Interviewer: Given all those  years living on rice and beans, I’m surprised you’re such a good cook! I’d think your repertoire would have been limited given your early childhood struggles just to have a meal.

Subject: No, my grandmother was a fabulous cook. She came over from Germany with her parents in the 1880’s and she insisted her mother show her all the family recipes. She said she may have had to give up her homeland but she was not going to give up her favorite foods .. and the memories that the recipes brought her. (looks down at her lap, dabs her eyes)

Interviewer: Food was important to her, then.

Subject: Yes, it was. So was tradition.  She was determined to “stay German” when her dad was brought over to work in the mines. She threw a fit when her dad suggested they change their last name so they’d fit in better. She won that battle, too. As you know, they never changed their name.


What We Learn from the First Interview: (6 Questions, 6 Answers, 4 pieces of Information)

The interviewer’s grandmother lived through the Depression.

They subsisted on rice and beans.

Her Dad had to take whatever work he could, and the types of jobs he did changed, as did his mood for struggling so.

She had a lot of aunts and uncles from both sides of the family.


What we Learn from the Second Interview: (2 Questions, 2 Comments, 12 pieces of Information)

Her Grandmother lived in the country during the Great Depression.

Her Father became sad during the Depression because he couldn’t keep a job that would keep food on the table.

Her Dad had a strong sense of responsibility to be the provider.

Her Grandmother likes to be outside.

Her Grandmother was a good gardener.

Her Grandmother learned to overcome a dark period by adapting in later years, finding something that made her feel opposite the sadness she felt during the Depression.

Her Father worked at a farm, then at shops or factories.

Her Grandmother was a good cook.

Her Great-Grandmother was a good cook and she learned to cook the family’s German recipes.

Her Great-Grandmother came to the US in the 1880’s with her parents.

Her Great-Great Grandfather was brought over to work in a mine.

Food was an integral part of her ancestors’ post-immigration culture.


© Colleen McHugh 2012

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of The In-Depth Genealogist. Receive The In-Depth Genealogist free by subscribing HERE.