If Anybody Wants to Listen

by Virginia H. Rollings

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    Turn a tape recorder into a time machine by recording interviews with older members of your family.

    I was five years old when our grandmother died back in 1892. We children stayed upstairs while all the neighbors gathered in the parlor below for the funeral.

    “My little sister and I pressed our noses against the windowpane, and we saw horses and carriages and wagons up and down the whole lane.

    “Then we saw the two black velvet horses come, pulling the shiny black hearse toward the house. The horses had gold fringes on their necks, and the high-wheeled hearse had windows on the sides with gold drapes and gold fringes.

    “The horses walked slowly, and they looked sad. I was sad too because we loved our grandmother and I didn’t understand, but I did know she would not be in our house anymore.

    “My mama cried, and her sister, Aunt Emily, came, and she held her little baby and cried. I felt sorry for them, but I didn’t cry.

    “Mama told me grandmother was old and needed to rest, so I didn’t cry.

    “It was two weeks afterward that I did cry. Just a few days after the funeral, Aunt Emily’s little baby took pneumonia. Maybe because she had been moved from her own house over in Emporia. We tiptoed around the house, my little sister Becca and I. We tiptoed, and we didn’t ask for anything. But the little baby died.

    “We were back upstairs, and the carriages were again up and down the lane. This time a little white hearse came, drawn by two little white ponies.

    “Now,” continued our grandmother, as the tape circled around her words. “Now we have sealed them all in the temple of the Lord, and they are together again. They didn’t know while they were on this earth that they could be together. Missionaries never came to our countryside homes.”

    Grandmother talked on, and the past came alive for us. She told of the mixture of coconut and oranges made for every Christmas and of the church picnic over at the Friends’ church. Grandmother’s ancestors had been Quakers.

    The Friends used the biblical pronouns, and the children were asked, “Wilt thou have a piece of chicken?” The proper reply was, “My thanks to thee for a piece of chicken.”

    After the picnic lunch of fried chicken, country-smoked ham, vegetables of every kind, home-made pickles, jellies, high coconut cakes, chocolate cakes, fresh lemon and potato pies, and “more food than you could ever tell of,” the meeting was reconvened.

    Use a Tape Recorder

    Oral history is simple for families to engage in. Not only can you record interesting stories of family members, but you can record occasions such as family home evenings and make duplicates of the tapes to send to far-away family members so they can share in the love and laughter and hear the voices of dear ones.

    The best part is that family members can hear it all again in later years if the tape is properly stored. The babble of the baby, the earnest efforts of little children to talk, the laughter and the usual noises of a household—these can be taped and played years later when all has changed. Children often ask about their childhood and enjoy hearing about their first words and “what I was like when I was little.”

    Good memories deserve good equipment. A recorder that will allow good sound reproduction and tapes that are not likely to tangle or break are important. A cassette tape recorder is convenient and can be carried almost everywhere.

    A quiet, private place is essential for the interview. Opening doors, ringing phones, chiming clocks, and outside traffic or other noises can detract from an interview. Our ears and minds filter out that which we do not choose to hear, but the cassette tape will record all noises.

    Use an attached microphone to record rather than depending upon the microphone built into the cassette. The microphone inside the cassette is so close to the reels that it may pick up the scraping noises of the motor and tape as they turn.

    Ask Questions

    The novice in oral history should first go to a library and listen to different types of taped interviews. The quality of the interview is largely determined by the interviewer. A good interviewer will ask well-considered questions that keep the interviewee talking and the interviewer in a supportive, background role.

    As an interviewer you must be interested in what is said—actively listening, encouraging the speaker, responding to the humor or pathos of events—yet never recording many of your own comments, laughter, or opinions. Active listening provides the nods of approval, the smiles, the sympathetic expression, the alert body responses, and obvious interest that are needed to make the interviewee feel natural and comfortable.

    Prepare for the Interview

    Before the actual taping, visit the person to be interviewed and discuss what memories should be recorded. Most of us have so many experiences in a lifetime that an organization and structuring of what is to be taped is usually advisable.

    Avoid actual rehearsals of interviews, since rehearsals may give the taped interview a stilted quality. However, anticipating the course of the interview and structuring the interview with notes and questions will help avoid omissions of important material.

    Don’t interrupt a response unless recollections are failing or turning to subjects you don’t want on the tape. Staying with objectives is important, but sometimes an interruption may stop the flow of memory and cause a valuable experience to be lost.

    One interesting tape of an elderly person tells of the day when the electric streetcar came to his town. It was a completely spontaneous response to a question the interviewer had asked about the first automobiles.

    “A lot of people had come in on horses and buggies and wagons for the big day. We kids had run about a mile on foot so as not to miss it.

    “We got a bigger surprise than we ever thought when that electricity sparked on the connectors and the car started. Some dignitaries were in the streetcar. The horses saw that car going, and they were scared to death. They had always seen streetcars pulled by horses. So now with that car going without horses, it was too much for their minds. They ran away with the wagons, and they stood up on their hind legs and almost turned the buggies over.”

    Find Genealoay Clues

    Often an elderly person can provide valuable genealogical information if an interview is well structured. In an interview for this purpose questions must be carefully prepared, asking for more detailed and complete information than an interview normally includes.

    Ask for the town, county, and state locations of relatives and ancestors. If there is uncertainty, ask for the distances to the nearest town. Perhaps the home place had a name, or important events occurred nearby, or the roadway by the place was named.

    One elderly person had no knowledge of the county she was born in. She mistakenly said, “I don’t think we lived in a county because we lived in the country—way out there. My ancestors lived on the Muskrat Branch, and to the west of their place there was a big swamp that they called Blackwater Swamp. It was someplace in Virginia I think.”

    With this information a county was identified, and the records of the family were found in the courthouse.

    Ask for locations of cemeteries, burial places, and churches attended. Find out whether they walked or rode to church and how far it was from home. If they rode, get a good description of the vehicle, the distance, and the time it took to go.

    Were family members baptized in the church building or a nearby river or lake? What was the name of the body of water? Who performed the baptism?

    Ask whether there were grave markers and how to find them. Ask how the grandparents looked and acted. Ask what their names were and whether there were nicknames. The maiden names of grandmothers are especially important since they may not be in written records.

    Ask about Feelings

    Encourage recollections of mental and spiritual development. Childhood feelings about God, about life and death, about parents and other family members become valuable to succeeding generations.

    “I was scared to death of going to church,” one woman related. “The preacher preached in a very loud voice and he talked of fire and brimstone. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night, or I would wake up from bad dreams. I vowed when I was grown I’d never go to church. But I do! True teachings came to me, and I go now. I used to love to see my friends when I was little, and we sat together. But we were all scared.”

    School days have changed. The commitment or lack of commitment to education needs retelling in every family.

    “We used to each have a piece of slate at our desks,” one grandfather said. “We wrote with a chunk of chalk and our shirt sleeves were our erasers. The teachers came around and checked each slate. One of my teachers always carried her ruler in her hand. When you felt it on your knuckles you knew your sums were wrong.”

    Interviewing can become a highly developed skill. But family tapes will be valuable to a family whether they are professionally done or not.

    Begin now while the grandparents are with you to record that which will be more priceless as each year passes.

    “I had a friend on the Titanic,” said one elderly man. “He was a wealthy gentleman and quite old. There were not enough life boats, and women were being put in the boats first. They were trying to help his wife over the side, but she would not go. They held on to each other, and they went down together on that big ship. Several survivors told of that.

    “Oh, I would tell a lot of things,” he continued. “That is, if anybody wants to listen. I’m 91 now and my oh my, the things I remember. Life is a wonderful experience, I tell you, it’s a wonderful experience!”

    Illustrated by Richard Sutter