When I was growing up one of the magazines in our household was Readers’ Digest, and a consistent feature in that publication from 1939 – 1967 was “The Most Unforgettable Character I have Ever Met”. Those brief biographies of famous and not-so-famous individuals was usually the first section that I read when each new issue arrived. Do you have an “unforgettable character” in your extended family? The one that grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins talk about frequently when they are gathered together? Or perhaps one that you met and made a deep impression on you?
I have been fortunate in gathering family stories. One of my great-grandmothers wrote some of her recollections of her childhood (1880s and 1890s) in the mid-1960s and passed it along to her grandchildren. Part of that was a journal that she kept in 1891 when she was 14 and her family came by covered wagon from southeastern Kansas to northwestern Iowa.
One of her sons-in-law was my granddad, and he had oral stories about sneaking out to enlist in World War I when he was 17, trying to drown an ornery cat, and some entertaining zingers about driving a cab in Sioux City in the 1940s.
My Mom took me at my word when she asked in the late 1980s what I wanted for my birthday one year, and I told her I would like a cassette tape of her pre-marriage memories. It turned out so much better than I anticipated! She made a total of four 60-minute tapes over the next five years, and I know so much more about my ancestors because of her efforts. She was in her early sixties then, and talked about grandparents, aunts and uncles, going to school in a K – 12 building, church, and sharing a bike with her older sister. She also convinced one of her aunts and one of her uncles to make their own tapes.
My Dad was not interested in sharing on his own, but three different times when his older sister was with us for holiday meals I sat them both down at the kitchen table after the dishes were finished and interviewed them. Answering specific questions was much easier for Dad, and the two of them together had numerous laughs about their growing up years – chores, pets, neighbors, different farm homes, and holiday gatherings.
The interview on tape that is most precious to me now is when Dad, two of my aunts, and one uncle, all who served in World War II, sat at that same kitchen table one hot summer afternoon in the late 1990s and answered my questions about their military experiences. One aunt was a WAC who served stateside, the other was a nurse who served in the South Pacific, and my uncle had assignments in the Army Air Corps in the Panama Canal Zone, Brazil, and the Midwest. Dad completed basic training after V-J Day, and ended up serving in Japan during the U.S. occupation after the war ended.
Those of you who are interested in finding out more about your own family heritage should try to interview a “talker” in your family. Someone who knows “where all the bones are buried”. If you need help coming up with possible interview questions, consult pages 155 -159 in Katherine Pennavaria’s excellent work, Genealogy: A Practical Guide (CS 16. P44 2015). Consider giving researching your personal family stories a try! You may be surprised how many “unforgettable characters” you uncover.