Interviewing Family Members
One of the best ways to learn about history is by talking to those who lived through it!
Talking to your parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents is a wonderful way to connect with them and learn about the past. Think about setting aside time to learn more about their lives and the way that Mahwah was in the past.
- Identify the family member you would like to interview. Choose someone who wants to talk about the past and who tells interesting stories. Let them know that you would like to do an interview ahead of time.
- Make sure that they agree to have the interview recorded and deposited at the Museum. It is best to start your interview by announcing who is participating. “This is John Doe interviewing my grandmother, Mary Smith, on May 2, 2020. The interview is taking place at Mrs. Smith’s home in Mahwah at 201 Franklin Turnpike.”
- Take the time to practice with your equipment. If you are using a camera to video or record audio do a test run to make sure that it records a normal speaking voice. Bring a charger so that you don’t run out of battery during the interview. Pack an extension cord.
- Prepare a general list of questions so that you have a script to fall back on if conversation slows. But take your time, let the interview go in directions that you might not predict.
- If possible, use memory cues, like photographs, scrapbooks, and heirlooms. These will often jog the memory and help the interviewee recall the past.
Few people are comfortable just telling the story of their life. We use prompts or questions to help direct the interview so that it covers a wide range of topics. There are many guides and lists of oral history questions to ask. Here are some examples, but you should tailor them to the person that you are interviewing, skipping any that are irrelevant:
- What is your full name? Why did your parents select this name for you? Are you named for anyone? Did you have a nickname?
- When and where were you born?
- How did your family come to live in Mahwah (or wherever they live)?
- Were there other family members in the area? Who?
- What was your house (apartment, farm, etc.) like? How many rooms? Bathrooms? Did it have electricity? Indoor plumbing? Telephones?
- Were there any special items in the house that you remember?
- What is your earliest childhood memory?
- Describe the personalities of your family members.
- What kind of games did you play growing up?
- What was your favorite toy and why?
- What was your favorite thing to do for fun (movies, beach, etc.)?
- Did you have family chores? What were they? Which was your least favorite?
- Did you receive an allowance? How much? Did you save your money or spend it?
- What was school like for you as a child? What were your best and worst subjects? Where did you attend grade school? High school? College?
- What school activities and sports did you participate in?
- Do you remember any fads from your youth? Popular hairstyles? Clothes?
- Who were your childhood heroes?
- What were your favorite songs and music?
- Did you have any pets? If so, what kind and what were their names?
- What was your religious life like growing up? What congregation, if any, did you attend? Describe a favorite holiday celebration.
- Were you ever mentioned in a newspaper?
- Who were your friends when you were growing up?
- What world events had the most impact on you while you were growing up? Did any of them personally affect your family?
- Describe a typical family dinner. Did you all eat together as a family? Who did the cooking? What were your favorite foods?
- How were holidays (birthdays, religious and patriotic, etc.) celebrated in your family? Did your family have special traditions?
- How is the world today different from what it was like when you were a child?
- Who was the oldest relative you remember as a child? What do you remember about them?
- What do you know about your family surname?
- Is there a naming tradition in your family, such as always giving the firstborn son the name of his paternal grandfather?
- What stories have come down to you about your parents? Grandparents? More distant ancestors?
- Are there any stories about famous or infamous relatives in your family?
- Have any recipes been passed down to you from family members?
- Are there any physical characteristics that run in your family?
- Are there any special heirlooms, photos, bibles or other memorabilia that have been passed down in your family?
- What was the full name of your spouse? Siblings? Parents?
- When and how did you meet your spouse? What did you do on dates?
- What was it like when you proposed (or were proposed to)? Where and when did it happen? How did you feel?
- Where and when did you get married?
- What memory stands out the most from your wedding day?
- How would you describe your spouse? What do (did) you admire most about them?
- What do you believe is the key to a successful marriage?
- How did you find out you were going to be a parent for the first time?
- Why did you choose your children’s names?
- What was your proudest moment as a parent?
- What did your family enjoy doing together?
- What was your profession and how did you choose it?
- If you could have had any other profession what would it have been? Why wasn’t it your first choice?
- Of all the things you learned from your parents, which do you feel was the most valuable?
- What accomplishments were you the most proud of?
- What is the one thing you most want people to remember about you?
Donate Your Interview to the Museum
The more stories we have from a wide range of Mahwah residents, the better able we will be to tell a full and rich story about the town’s past. We want to hear from you, and learn about your family’s unique experiences in Mahwah no matter when your story begins.