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Preserving family history: Questions to ask your grandparents

Learning about your family history is an incredible way to deepen your connections with loved ones, understand where your family came from, and continue on family traditions. In fact, one Emory University study indicated that children who knew stories about their relatives showed higher levels of emotional wellbeing. 

But how do you get started with the process of learning more about your family? What kinds of questions should you be asking? Who should you be talking to? How should you record that information?

To make things simpler for you, we’ve put together a list of the six types of questions to ask your family members so that you can learn your family’s history and preserve it for future generations. While all family members’ stories are valuable, we recommend starting with the oldest members of your family - grandparents or even great-grandparents, if they’re around - as they know the most about the past.  

old couple sitting in a vineyard

Ask about your grandparents’ names

  1. What is your grandparents’ first, middle, and last name?
  2. Have they had any name changes, perhaps at Ellis Island or through marriage?
  3. What was the origin of these names? 
  4. Did they have any nicknames? 
  5. What were their sibling’s names? 

Because names are so personal, these name stories lead to much longer narratives about time, place, and family bonds. As you learn about the history of your family names, write down anything that stands out to you. The conversation might help you choose a name for your future child - or you might learn that you’ve been pronouncing your last name incorrectly all your life. Above all else, it will help you to educate the generations to come. 

Find out how your grandparents met 

  1. When, where, and how did your grandparents meet?
  2. Were they married? Who proposed? Where?
  3. Do they have photos of their wedding or proposal?

Our family trees often begin with two people getting married. By asking your grandparents how they met their spouse, you will unlock a plethora of personal memories, ranging from the diner where they first met to the park where your grandfather popped the question. 

It’s surprising how few of us actually know the details of our parents’ or grandparents’ relationships. In addition to helping us learn more about our family members, it also makes for an incredible love story to tell our family members. Bonus points if you can get your grandparents to send you photos of some of these adorable moments! Those are worth hanging onto for sure. 

Ask where your grandparents worked 

  1. How many jobs did they have throughout their lives? What were they?
  2. Which job was their favorite? 
  3. What did they like or dislike about their job(s)?
  4. Do they have memorabilia from any of their past jobs?

We spend so much of our lives working, so it’s only natural to ask about your grandparents’ occupations. Through these questions, you may discover interesting information about your family’s past that you had no idea about. You might find out that your grandfather was in the military or that your grandmother worked as a midwife in Europe for years before immigrating to America. There’s no telling where the question may lead!

Hear about childhood memories 

  1. What do your grandparents remember most about their childhood?
  2. What were their parents like? Their grandparents?
  3. Where did they live? Did they ever move?
  4. What did they like to wear growing up?
  5. What was their favorite food as a kid?
  6. What current events were going on during their childhood?

Some of the richest stories come from memories of our childhood - so it would be a disservice to skimp out on these questions. By learning about your grandparents’ childhood, you will be able to put yourself in their shoes and gain perspective about what their life was like. 

Many of these questions build upon each other and chances are you, might end up in an hour long conversation - or more. In this case, it would be great to ask your grandparents for permission to record them so you can save the information for later! 

Learn about your grandparents’ traditions and values 

  1. Did they have any family traditions? What were they?
  2. How are these traditions practiced?
  3. Where did these traditions come from?
  4. What lessons did they learn from their family?
  5. What advice has been passed down from generation to generation?

Every family has a tradition - and if you don’t, there might just be one that you haven’t heard about. Whether it’s something as silly as eating cake the day before your birthday or as serious as celebrating the day your uncle got a military medal, family traditions can very well produce happiness for years to come. The deeper you dig into these questions, the more you will really grow to understand your family and the more you will be able to preserve your family history.

Learn about extended family 

  1. What was their extended family like? 
  2. Which family members did they remember most? Why?
  3. Do they have any photos of their extended family?

These questions are transformative in terms of learning about your family’s origins. The further back your grandparents can remember, the more you will learn about the beginnings of your family tree. If your grandparents can pull up some photos, that’s even better! Some families have black and white photos dating back to the 1800s. All of this can be digitized and saved for future generations.

Put it all together 

Asking your grandparents all of these questions might seem like a daunting task, so start small and work your way up to some of the deeper questions. Technology can also help a ton in this realm. With the Rosy app and console, you'll be able to record your grandparents’ responses, and digitize photos and memorabilia. By doing the work now, you’ll help educate so many future generations within your family and keep your family history well preserved. 

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