Pueblo County, Colorado
Interview Guideline

The Day You Were Born

Where and when were you born? In a hospital? At home? In a taxi cab?
Did your mom tell you about the day you were born?
What time of the day were you born? The middle of the night, morning, evening?
What was the weather like?
Were you born during the middle of a blizzard or on a balmy spring day?
How did she (and your dad) feel on that day?
How did you feel on the day your first (second, third) child was born?

Childhood and School Days

Where and when did you go to school (elementary, high school, college, trade school, graduate school) What were your favorite subjects? Why? Who were your favorite teachers?
What were your favorite hobbies, sports, amusements, youth groups (Scouts, 4-H, etc.) as a child, teenager, young adult?
What would a typical school day, Saturday, Sunday have been like as a child, teenager, young adult? Chores, for instance, have changed a lot since children had to fetch water, chop kindling and hold a leg while Dad butchered the elk.
If you had an after school or summer job, what did you do? What did you like about it? Dislike about it? What was the funniest thing that happened on the job? How much did you earn?
What would that buy in terms of candy bars, movie tickets, toys, or other things you were likely to buy at that age?
Where did you live as a child, teenager, young adult? What was the house like? What was the town like? What do you remember liking and disliking about it? As an adult, why did you pick the places you picked to live (Specific apartments, neighborhoods, cities, regions)?
What was the most exciting thing that happened to you as a child, teenager, young adult? Or, what were the three most, five most, seven most exciting things?

Romance, Work, Play and History

How did you and your spouse meet? What attracted you to each other? Do you have a favorite incident from your courtship that was either funny in the ordinary way or embarrassing then, funny now?
What was your wedding like? Where and when was it held? Was this typical for the time? Did you dance? What did people wear?

Military service

When and where did you serve? Why did you choose it, if you had a choice? What was the most exciting thing that happened to you in the service? Funniest? Most frightening? This particular section can get intense if you are interviewing a Vietnam vet. Try to be sensitive. If your subject is willing, ask about his reactions to the furor at home while he was fighting. There will probably not be many funny anecdotes here, no matter what war they fought in.


What did you do? Why did you choose it as a career? What did you especially like and dislike about the job(s)? What are some of the things you are proudest of? How much did you make to start with at your first full-time job? How much was that in terms of a "starter" home, or a good second-hand car? (Inflation being what it is, most of us started working at wages that seem ridiculously low now. Asking how much a car, house or whatever cost back then balances it out. I only earned $2,000 a year at a variety of part time and summer jobs while I was in college, but it was enough to cover room, board, tuition, books and living expenses.)
What did you do outside of your job as an adult? Why did you do it? What did you like or dislike about it? Funny, proud, sad events? Not just volunteer work, but hobbies, recreation, travel, and so on. Do you bird watch, water ski, play the banjo, teach Sunday school, volunteer at the library, fly fish, collect stamps, refinish antiques, rebuild hot rods?
What historical events have you witnessed in person? Via radio or television? How did you and your friends and neighbors react to them?

Religion, Children, History again

Religion - Why did you choose your particular denomination, if you did? What do you like about it? Dislike? What was the funniest thing that ever happened to you in church? What was the most awe-inspiring thing? What was your proudest moment? What was your saddest moment? What was the top church event in that elusive class, "Things that were horribly embarrassing then but funny now that a few years have passed"?


Where and when were they born? How did you pick their names? What were they like as infants and toddlers? Most of the questions above are as open and optional as I could phrase them, but parents doing this have to come up with at least two anecdotes about each child, for the grandchildren to chuckle over.
Larger events, personal perspective - what do you notice is the biggest (three biggest, five biggest) change in the world today from the world you knew as a child? What one, three, five things can you remember being invented in your life which people today take for granted?
(The first time ever I saw a television set, it was showing a boxing match. The horizontal adjustments was off. The top half of the screen showed the boxer's legs, the bottom half their heads, arms and chests. I thought there was a special double-decked boxing arena, and the TV was showing two matches at once.)
Even if you didn't participate in a large event, you may have watched. When I was born, somewhat before 1950, women kept house, men worked, and schools were segregated. What changes have you seen in your society and the way it treats women? Different races? Alternative lifestyles?

Eating - Holidays and Hard Times

Food makes memories and binds families together. How did you celebrate Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas? What did you eat, and how did you cook it? How did you decorate the house? Did you do anything special for breakfast, lunch or dinner on your birthday? If you are writing an autobiography, and you are an American between 25 and 50, there is a good chance Super Bowl Sunday is one of your major holidays. Don't forget to describe it.
Did your family celebrate any holidays that were special to your religious or ethnic heritage? If, for instance, you are Jewish, Muslim or Sikh, how did you feel when Christmas rolled around? How did your parents help you cope?
This would be a good place to ask about heirloom recipes, too.
What was your favorite meal, apart from the holidays?
Not everyone had steak every Saturday night when they were growing up. I don't think anything brought the reality of the Great Depression home to me more than my mother's description of eating corn meal mush for dinner.

The Unknown Side

The next question is one I ask at dinner parties a lot. "What have you done that no one would guess you'd done, to look at you"? People are surprising.
One evening, when my daughter was a Girl Scout, we adults were sitting around the fire after the girls had gone to their tents. Talk turned to wool sweaters scented with wood smoke, and other memorable odors. A small, quiet fellow who everyone in the troop called "Grandpa" told us he'd never forget the smell of a Japanese pillbox wiped out by a flame thrower. When World War II broke out he'd lied about his age and gone to Guadalcanal as a Sea Bee.
Our children took ballet lessons with the children of a thin, scholarly piano teacher. I never thought of him as an athlete until he swam the length of our pool, twice, underwater. He told us his lungs had always been good; when he was a boy he climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States, in a single day.
An accountant used to work down the hall from me. She had glasses, brown hair and an air of meticulous attention to detail. Her office had a wall of spectacular underwater photos. I asked her once if she had bought reprints from the National Geographic. She said, no, she and her husband lived rather frugally so that they could spend two weeks a year SCUBA diving. They had been all over the Caribbean and the South Pacific. She'd taken about half, he the others.
During my brief stint as an eighth-grade math teacher, the ace reporter from the school paper interviewed all of us first-year teachers. I wanted to tell him about being tear gassed by riot police or tattooed by headhunters. He asked, "What's your favorite food?"
Years of asking that question have convinced me that everyone has done something exciting, interesting or amazing at least once in their life. Your deed doesn't have to be a huge, death-defying stunt; just something to make your grandchildren say, "Wow - I never knew that!"
There are a lot of subjects that don't fit any of the above very well. Many of them are what I call the "est" questions. What is the best meal you've ever eaten? Worst? (What are the ten best, for that matter, and three worst?) What was the best vacation you've ever taken? Worst? What was the nicest act of human kindness you've performed or benefited from? What was the most beautiful sunset (sunrise, waterfall, rolling hillside covered with wildflowers) you've ever seen? Fanciest party you've ever been to? Most fun you've had in a single day?

Ten More Questions

Tell me about the house you lived in, as a child. Where was it located? How many rooms did it have? What were the sleeping arrangements?
Who was in charge of putting the logs on in the morning? Did your mother do all the cooking or did the kids help? How were chores assigned? By age? By gender?
Tell me about the town you lived in. What was it like? Did you know everyone in town? Did your parents perform any civic duties besides voting? Did they attend city council meetings, hold any office etc. ?
Where did you have to go to get your mail? Where did you have to go to get the staples you needed for living? Did you buy clothes or did Grandma make them for you?
Tell me about the first home you lived in after your marriage. Where was it and what was it like? What did you like the most about it? What did you like the least?
Tell me about your travels.
What did you get in trouble for the most when you were a child? How were you punished? Did you feel that Grandma or Grandpa had any favorite children? Least favorites? Or did you feel that you were all treated equally?
What was the one thing that you learned as a child that you carry with you to this day?
What is the biggest problem facing our country today?
What time of the day do you like the best and why?
When asking other relatives about the family, people should ask for their opinions about other family members. For example, when talking to great-aunt Sally, ask her about her immediate and immediate-extended (cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents) family: Who was the funniest? Who was the best cook? The worst cook? Who was tallest or shortest, bald, hairy, fat, skinny? Who had the best hair (or longest or shortest) in the family? Who was the best looking? Who was the most helpful? The friendliest?
Once one of these questions reminds Aunt Sally about first cousin Elizabeth's beautiful long hair, you will hear about first cousin Elizabeth. And if Aunt Sally remembers that cousin Clyde taught her how to play checkers when brother John wouldn't, then you will learn much about cousin Clyde's level of compassion, as well as his sense of fun.


What was your first car?

Family Sayings

What are the family saying that you remember from your grandparents, parents, etc?

Take a Remembering Trip

A couple of years ago, my aunt's husband died, and I took my parents (now in their mid-80s) the 180+ miles to our hometown, to attend the funeral. Knowing that my father and his sister are the last of the older generation, and feeling that we would probably not be getting together many more times with the elders present, I tucked a small notebook & pen into my purse. The evening after the funeral, a number of us gathered at my aunt's house, and began remembering old times. We got Dad and my aunt to tell us about things that happened when they and their now departed siblings were growing up. Naturally there were many laughs and tears. I made notes as we talked, and as soon as I returned to my motel room, I wrote up the notes as best I could. I've since added these notes to the appropriate places in my genealogy program, and sent them to the cousins that were present that night. Realizing how much all of us enjoyed the time together, my husband and I now are making an effort to take my parents back to our hometown a couple of times a year for more of these remembering trips. I still take notes, and even the cousins who weren't there the first time, now are participating. We are all being enriched by this activity, and saving memories for future generations.

My Aunt is a nun, so some of the questions you suggested don't quite fit. Here are some that I came up with, based on your ideas.
When did you decide to become a nun?
Was there any specific event that made you want to become a nun?
When did you leave home to start your studies?
Where did you go?
What was school like in a convent?
What did you learn about?
How often could you go home?
Were you ever homesick?
What were the rooms like?
Were you able to take any of your favorite things with you when you went to school?
Where did you serve and in what capacity?

The Scent of Yesteryear

Thirteen years ago, I wanted my mother-in-law to write down her stories but I couldn't find a good linchpin for her. She grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in Davenport, Iowa. I asked her to tell me about the smells in the butcher shop. She told me not only about the smells but the young boys who waited outside the door to deliver an order for a couple of pennies. The memory of the smell opened a floodgate. I wrote down a list of memories afterwards and had her write a couple of paragraphs about each. I have heard that our brain stores our smells and memories fairly close. The next time you smell the odor in airplane cement, do you remember putting together model airplanes? Does the smell of chalk dust put you back in a classroom? Smells evoke feelings. Along with the smell, the teller has the opportunity to express how he or she felt at that point. Was she mad, sad, glad or scared? It will add to the richness of the written memory.

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Please e-mail comments and suggestions to Karen Mitchell© - 2010 Karen Mitchell