If You Never Ask the Question

The following article is by my good friend, William Dollarhide:

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 44: Genealogy is an addiction with no cure and for which no 12-step program is available.

In probing your relatives with questions about your ancestry you may only get responses in bits and pieces. Therefore, you need to keep going back to your family as new information is learned, fill them in, and see if it jogs their memories for even more information. Oral historians devise questionnaires as a guide in interviewing people, and genealogists can do the same thing. Then, each unanswered question or incomplete answer should be followed-up as more data is gathered.

One of the great benefits I enjoyed as a new genealogist was to have my mother live with me for the last twenty years of her life. Mother was born Marjory Watkins Wiles in 1906 and died in 1996. When I first became interested in genealogy she was always there to help remember names, stories, and to fill in details about our ancestry. She had a remarkable memory of people and could recite the names, places, and dates of a myriad of events in her life. She had a great memory of things her mother had told her, and she remembered her early experiences as a child, and her contacts with her relatives. All I had to do was ask a question about a certain time or place and her memory would kick in. To associate a particular event, she would say something like, “Oh, yes. That was when Jim was a baby,” and with that, off she would go with the memories related to that time. With seven children born between 1930 to 1942, she had intuitively organized her memories from that period by relating them to each child’s natal period, so all I had to do to get a story about the time when the family lived in Corvallis, Oregon was to relate it to “when David was a baby,” and she was flooded with memories.

But one time, I thought I had caught her cold. I had just returned from a trip to Edna, Kansas where I had visited the gravesite of mother’s grandfather, Benjamin Watkins, who had died there in 1914. The cemetery sexton records indicated that the Watkins family plot consisted of six burial lots, but only two of them had interments. That is when I learned that the grave next to Benjamin’s marker was in the same family plot but it was for a name I had never seen before. It was a burial for a Marie McDaniel, who had died in 1976. The name meant nothing to me. I didn’t have a clue as to who she was or how she might be related to Benjamin Watkins. After returning home, I asked mother about the name Marie McDaniel and whether it meant anything to her. She responded, “Of course, she was my cousin.”

I couldn’t believe it. I asked her, “Mom, why have you never mentioned that name to me before?” and Mom said, “You never asked me before.” With the name Marie McDaniel recalled into her memory, mother proceeded to fill me in on Marie (Watkins) McDaniel’s family, where they lived, the name of her father (my grandmother’s older brother), and more details I never knew before.

That day some bells went off in my head. After dozens of interviews, hundreds of questions, and an array of details about my family, I never would have believed that I could have missed something – but a rule is now ingrained into my thinking: If you never ask the question – you will never know the answer.

Interviewing Relatives for Genealogical Information
I have learned that I have more success interviewing relatives by asking questions that relate to their own personal experiences, rather than asking them first for names, dates, and places. The human brain may store information in unrelated bits and pieces, but usually stores facts related to events that took place in our past. For example, you may remember the time you fell off your bike, cut your knee-cap and had to go to the doctor and have stitches put in. With that memory, the associated names, dates, and places can be constructed. While interviewing a relative, and after learning of some event in a person’s life, ask when that happened, where it took place, and who was there with them at the time. This is how a genealogist can get the names, dates, and places of genealogical events — by association.

A strong memory of certain events, such as the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, JFK was assassinated, the 9/11 tragedy, or some personal highlight in a person’s life will evoke associated memories. These might include the place a person was living and working, the time of year, the street where the house was located, the people who lived next door, the doctor’s office, the church they attended, and perhaps many other details. A way to evoke these genealogical bits and pieces is to identify the personal events.

So now, when I ask my relatives questions, I try to relate the queries to some event in their life.
Here are a few sample questions, relating to . . .

An illness:
– Were you ever in the hospital? Where was it? What was the problem?
– Who was your family doctor? Is he still in practice, or did another doctor take it over?

Going to church:
– Where did you go to church? Do you recall any records that were taken there, such as marriages, baptisms, christenings, etc.? Is that church still there?
– Did you have relatives who went to the same church?

A funeral or burial:
– Did your family go to cemeteries on Memorial Day? Which cemetery? Which relatives were buried there?
– How about the funeral of grandfather, what do you remember about that day? Who ended up with the funeral guest book? What was the name of the funeral home? Where was it located?

Going to school:
– Where did you go to school? Is that school still there? Do you remember any school annuals in which your picture appeared? Did you have relatives that went to the same school?

Going to a nursing home:
– Were any of your relatives ever in a nursing home? Where was it? Do you think it is still in business today?

Going to weddings
– Do you remember going to any of your relatives’ weddings? Who were they? What was their relationship to you?
– Do you remember the people who came to your wedding? Was there a guest book that everyone signed?

Going into the service:
– Where were you living when you went in the Army? Navy? Where did you serve? Did you receive any awards? When were you discharged?

Going to work:
– Where was your first job? Are they still in business? What did you do? How much were you paid? How long did you stay there? Do you remember when you first signed up for a social security card? Where were you at the time?

Note that the sample questions are aimed at locating a possible research source, such as a hospital, doctor’s office, church, funeral home, cemetery, and so on. You can come up with many more questions on your own. And please, remember the following rule:

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 49: If you never ask the question – you will never know the answer.

For further reading, see:

Recording Your Family History, by William Fletcher – on sale for just $6.97!

Give Your Family A Gift That Money Can’t Buy – Record & Preserve Your Family’s History, 4th Edition; by Jeffrey A. Bockman – just $7.87!

Video Tape your Family History, Second Edition by Louise St Denis – just $7.84!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.