Family Memories at Thanksgiving

Mr. M. Conway family dinner, November 23, 1950, by Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.), National Muse

What better time to capture family memories and stories than when you and your relatives gather to celebrate Thanksgiving? For the past several years, several organizations have encouraged families to listen to one another and record family history over the Thanksgiving weekend. StoryCorps, for example, has launched The National Day of Listening. So put down that pumpkin pie and forget about the mad dash to the mall. When the parade is over, sit down with an older family member and ask them about their lives, their memories, their stories. Many families have started to ask older family members to tell stories at the Thanksgiving dinner table—memories that provoke more memories and stories. It’s a wonderful way to connect older generations with newer ones, and to create a shared family tradition.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade down Broadway, 1936, Smithsonian Photographic Services, National Muse

Also, think about preserving those memories for generations to come, away from the hubbub of the dinner table. Sometime over the weekend, before the family disperses, try to find a quiet place with phones and football games off, to record those memories in audio or video format. If done in digital audio or video, you can then easily share those recordings with other family members or post them to a family web page. You might also involve children in the family, helping them to prepare questions and conduct the actual interview, and really making this a family project.

Thanksgiving Day menu by George Elbert Burr, 1905, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Carol

Begin the recording with an introduction that states who is being interviewed, by whom, when, where, and why. This creates a permanent record of what the interview is.

Where to start? You might ask some basic biographical questions about where and when they were born, grew up, went to school, and how holidays were celebrated when they were young. Ask them to tell their favorite story—perhaps about a vacation or family event. The Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has an Interviewing Guide online that can be very helpful. Or take out an old photograph album and ask grandpa or grandma to tell you who the people in those old pictures are and what they remember about them. You might show some old home movies and then record the stories they bring to mind. Try to be sure you get names of people that they are talking about—is that Uncle Al Henson or Uncle Al McDonough? Ask grandpa or grandma to clarify the names at the end of the interview, because that information will be very helpful down the road. You might end the interview asking them for reflections on their life and family, or what advice they would have for the newborns in the family.

When I do interviews like these, I like to take a picture of the person at the start of the interview, to capture their image at that point in time. I also try to scan any photographs we talk about. After the interview is done, be sure to preserve the recording and photographs by copying them to a good quality CD or DVD. (I actually make two copies in case one should fail.)  Label the recording carefully, writing down again who was interviewed by whom, when, where and why, and also note what kind of recording this is—an mp3 file from an iPod recorder or a Windows Movie file from a Canon movie camera. Years from now it will be important to know what type of file this is. Then you can copy the CD/DVD and share the memories with brothers, sisters, cousins, and grandchildren.

So sit back and listen this holiday weekend, sharing stories, connecting generations and preserving memories.

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