Questions for our parents or grandparents

It is so important to ask our parents or elderly grandparents about their lives and the history of the family.  Ask those questions now while we have still a chance. Especially with Covid-19, we might run out of time and be regretful. It is true that most people actually enjoy talking about themselves. Many people will enjoy the fact that someone is showing an interest in their lives. Once our parents or grandparents are gone then the stories are gone as well. Many of us are hesitant to have these conversations. The conversation requires us to look at mortality and the need to consider that this person might not be around in the future. This is something we really feel uncomfortable dealing with. The Coronavirus has brought this to the forefront where we realize that we might not even have access to the person.


The process of asking the questions should be formalized. There should be a time set up. It should not be done in some random conversation. It is better if there is an appointment made especially if this can only happen on a zoom call which is the likely reality these days. The questions should be prepared in advance by the child or grandchild. Open-ended questions are better than yes or no answers. If possible the call should be recorded since our memories are so fragile. We will likely forget much of the details. By recording the conversation we can remember the persons’ voice and body language which is so important too.

Once these conversations are recorded they can be shown to the next generation at some point. Wouldn’t it be great if we had recordings of our own previous generations?

The first step is resolving technical issues. Hopefully, there is already a camera connected and the zoom software works.  Once we know this is technically possible the next step is introducing the idea of this conversation with the parent and or grandparent and the appointment can be made.

The questions need not be presented in advance.

After everyone is settled and comfortable we can begin.

Questions about their family’s history. 

Start by asking the person to introduce themselves. Their name, date of birth, home town. Ask about their parents, siblings. Get the names and home towns.  Ask about their grandparents and where they were from.  How and when did they get to the United States?   Where did the families live?  Uncles and aunts.

Questions about education and careers.

Ask about school. Name of the school(s). Favorite teacher, subject. Graduation. Did they serve in the military? If they did then this is likely a new conversation especially is they were involved in wartime.

College?  First job, first car, favorite movie growing up. Music?

Talk about friends. Best friends or friends that you have seen since high school.

Questions about religious life.

Where you and/or your family religious?  What did that mean?  Were there other families who were of a different faith

Sports – playing or watching?  Teams?

Questions about meeting Mom/Dad.

The questions about mom or grandma can follow. When did you meet mom, where, how? Where did you go on your first date?  What about her parents?  What education and career did they have?   Where and when did you get married?  Tell us about the wedding?   Walking down the aisle?

Married Life. Having children. Traveling together. Where they went? Favorite places. Places they wished they could return to.

There are certain touchstone events that are so iconic that most people remember them clearly e.g. where were they when they heard about the assassination of JFK?  These questions can be used to add context to the conversations. They will tell you where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with etc.

Time Limits.

Keep in mind that this conversation should be reasonably brief. There should be a time limit placed beforehand especially since they will likely get tired and have to stop and  If it is too long then it is likely to remain un-watched unless it is heavily edited.

How to prevent tangents or rambling is the key to making this all work but this is obviously subjective because the tangents or rambling could likely lead to very interesting discoveries. How to balance the tangents with the need to get a complete history?  In the end, it is better to get through the questions so there is a comprehensive history and take note of the potential tangents. These can be addressed later If necessary e.g. military history. This will likely need a separate time to be set up to talk about this.

The important thing is not to wait until its too late



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