The Privilege of Perspective - How a Family History Questionnaire Can Enhance Your View of Your Ancestors
Recently I asked three of my oldest relatives to answer a list of questions in an effort to gain more information about the family history I’ve been compiling for the last ten years. It was a long list and after reading through the answers one Aunt provided, I feel that I have gained a valuable perspective for continuing my work.
There are many different “Family History Questionnaire’s” available online that are downloadable and printable. When I was looking for one to use, I took bits and pieces of several different lists of questions and compiled my own, so that the questionnaire was geared more toward what I already knew about my family’s history.
A general outline for a Family History Questionnaire might include several basic sections: General Information, Growing Up, Family, Home Life and Occupation are common. But within those sections I urge you to add questions that are less documentable. For example, in the General Information portion, “How was your name chosen?”, “What were your parents like?”, “Who is the oldest family member you personally knew? Tell me about that person.” In Growing Up, “Describe your childhood house in detail.”, “What is your favorite holiday memory?” “Did you attend family reunions? If so, who would attend?”. These types of questions allow the participant to expand on the basics and to give us a view of family life as they experienced it, without the blinders we often create for ourselves with paper trails and documentation. The answers to these questions allow us the privilege of perspective from someone who was there. We can gain new insights about the ancestors we never met, but our living relatives knew very well.
I never met my Great Grandfather. What I knew of him was limited mostly to documentation in vital records and a photo of him that scared the bejeebers out of me for years when I was growing up. He just looked so stern!
Interestingly, my favorite take away after reading through my Aunt’s questionnaire was this:
Question: Who is the oldest family member you personally knew? Tell me what you remember about them/what you learned from them.
Answer: “Grandfather Thomas Hare - He died when I was 9 years old. I spent a lot of time with him - “helping” him in his gardens. He had a friend ‘Uncle Billy’ (a black man) they played their violins together - my Grandfather taught me that some people have different colored eyes, some people have different colored skin - we are all equal. Live with compassion for others and strive in life to do what makes you happy.”
Great Grandfather doesn’t seem scary to me at all anymore.