Much has been written about living wills and medical directives, yet there is a huge gap in our knowledge about other things that involve our parents and other elderly relatives -- knowledge that is important for us to have. Here are seven questions to ask them now.
1. Who are all these people in the old family photos?
There is no better time than the present to gather up all the print photos and make sure they are dated and everyone is identified. Once that's done, make digital copies of them. Paper doesn't last forever, nor do our memories of events. And wouldn't it be nice to know the last name of "Sam" and what he and Grandpa were laughing about in their old Army uniforms? Was that old black and white photo with "summer, 1950" written on the back taken by the lake in upstate New York where Great Aunt Sadie lived? That photo of Grandma pregnant: Was it with Mom or her sister?
2. Where did we come from?
No, not the birds and bees talk! Many of our families immigrated to the countries we presently call home. But where were they before? Gather as many details as you can about your family history from your aging relatives while you can. Were they from the city of Kiev or a farm 100 km to the north? How did the family get to America and who sponsored them? Was Jones really your last name or was it changed at Ellis Island? Your chances of compiling an oral family history diminish daily.
3. What family history has been edited?
Every family has a few skeletons in the closet -- the uncle who went to jail for being a cat burglar, the aunt who ran off and eloped when she was 15. When the events are new, they are often too raw for discussion. But 50 years after the fact, emotions mellow and the events still shaped your family's history. It's time to learn the missing details. We have a friend who recently learned that her uncle had been married previously and that she had two older cousins she'd never met.
4. What were the best of times?
We recently heard someone speak fondly of living through the Great Depression. It forced the family to be closer and appreciate what they had, she said. They shared with neighbors and people helped one another. "Not like it is today," she lamented. Ask your relatives for their specific memories of the good times, when the family was its strongest, its best. You might be surprised by the answers.
5. And what were the worst?
The deaths lost to diseases for which there are now cures, the babies lost to miscarriages who today would have lived, the soldiers who didn't return home from war. Your family's losses are part of its history. Make sure you know the losses.
6. What does your family street map look like?
Just because Dad has been a lifelong Cubs fan doesn't mean he actually ever lived in Chicago. Get specific street addresses, as best as your relatives can remember. One day you or your grandchildren might want to drive by the house he was born in. A 60-something friend last December knocked on the door of what had been her first married home 35 years ago. There had been at least three owners since she and her husband sold it. The current owner invited her in and showed her all the changes that had been made. The Christmas tree was in the same spot, she said.
7. Can you fill in the blanks on our ancestry tree?
The devil is in the details. One missing great-great aunt and you may have an entire branch of relatives you didn't know about. Press for specifics.
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