Interviewing My Grandmother

I've been interviewing my grandmother and asking her all the questions I should have asked ten years ago when I first tried to interview her.  The first time I interviewed her I only asked her what she knew about her ancestors and asked her nothing about her life.  Well, now I'm righting that wrong.

Last weekend we started and covered her life in Petaluma (the first seven years of her life).  I had no idea it would be as educational as it was or that it would turn out to be as emotional as it got at times.  Here are some of the highlights of what I learned about my grandmother, and the interview process:
  • My grandmother had an older brother, David, who was either stillborn or died shortly after birth.  I'd heard rumors about a sibling of hers who had died but this was the first time she ever really spoke of him.  She didn't know much about what happened to David (like when he was born or where he is buried) as her mother (my great-grandmother) never spoke of him and would cry whenever anyone mentioned him. 
  • My grandmother was almost named Susanna Marie but her parents ended up naming her after her two grandmothers.  Problem is, the person who filled out her birth certificate misspelled her name and no one caught it until it was too late.  Not surprisingly, she has gone by a nickname all her life.
  • When my grandmother was little there was a man at her church who said he could pull himself up by the bootstraps and that if my grandmother practiced enough, she could too.  She then went home and promptly began trying to, literally, pull herself up by her bootstraps.
  • My grandmother was the youngest in her family by quite a bit and there weren't many playmates for her on the street where they lived.  So she invented her own playmates named Balloon and Barbara Shed.  Apparently she and her "friends" were pretty close.  One day, when she was about five, she was at a gathering when a little boy asked her if she wanted to play.  My grandmother told him that wanted to bring two friends and that she'd have to ask her mother if it was alright.  After she got the okay, she came back with Balloon and Barbara and the little boy went running for the hills.
  • I had my mother with me as I was interviewing my grandmother and I can't even begin to say how glad I am that she was there.  I don't think the answers I got would have been nearly as detailed without my mother's input and best of all, my mother thought to ask questions that hadn't even crossed my mind.
  • My grandmother was more than a little apprehensive about being interviewed at first.  Then I began bringing up stories and anecdotes that she had already told me.  It put her at ease and I think showed her that I was sincerely interested in what she had to say.
  • I threw the script out the window after about five minutes and just let her guide the conversation.  I'm so glad I did.
After about two or three hours we called it quits for the day.  She was getting restless and there were things to do.  I thought that was the end of it but then at dinner she started bringing up little tidbits from her youth that she had remembered through the day.  After the meal, my mother had to leave and run an errand and my grandmother and I stayed and kept talking.  She wanted to talk about her father as the last question I had asked her during our interview that morning had to do with her memories of him.  After a few stories she started to tear up and said "He never said 'I love you' but I know he did... He was such a wonderful person in so many ways."  After that the room got quiet and a few minutes later my mother got home.  We started talking about Christmas and the little things around the house that needed to be done.   Then it started to get late and my mother and I were getting ready to leave.  We were saying our goodbyes and I was hugging my grandmother when I realized that that hug lasted just a bit longer than they usually do, and that so much more had happened that day than me just interviewing my grandmother.


  1. Wow, that is some powerful stuff, thanks for sharing it.

  2. Leah, that is so awesome. I'm so glad that you did this now. I never did with my grandmother, or my mother-in-law, and now it's too late. And it sounds like meant a lot to her as well.

  3. Leah - This is a wonderful post. You are so smart too. When I was your age I was too busy doing other things in my life to take the time to ask the questions your asking. I wish I did, but I didn't. Now she's gone, and it's too late. Keep doing what you're doing. You'll be happy you did!


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