Do Not Wait! Interview Your Elders

Do you want to keep someone’s experience of life  alive forever? There are many reasons to capture memories of  aging individuals when they cannot write their own memoirs.  I  helped one gentleman tell his stories by asking him questions and writing his answers down  so his daughter could order a limited edition of books about his life. That was an expensive project. Many families arrange video interviews. My favorite method preserves personality without the formal arrangement a video interview usually requires. You can take your own pictures.

Artist Trudi Heeb captures the essence of waiting in this montage.

Artist Trudi Heeb captures the essence of waiting in this montage.

“Oral History” became popular a couple of decades ago following the “Roots” movement. The National Endowment for the Humanities funded a number of projects to get information from older citizens who had participated in events of public historic importance. Around that time, having lived in seven different states in 37 years,  I became interested in knowing what it is like for a woman to live in one place all their lives — or at least fifty years. I wanted to interview a few, if I could find them. I was aware of the formal methods of historical projects. A set of questions was prepared, and each team of interviewers used it. Every person on the list got asked the same things. I thought that was not fair to the individual.

Everyone remembers different things.

Family Photo Album 1920s-1940s

Each of us remembers uniquely, different aspects of the same event. In my plan, each woman would have lived a different kind of life. Therefore, I decided to just go and ask as little as possible — just start a conversation about things that were recalled about the place; things that had happened to them; things that could not have happened anywhere else.

After trying this on my own, I learned about something called “oral history.” I discovered there were other methods than the standardized Q&A that yielded the kind of information I wanted. There was an anthropological method, that was designed to preserve the integrity of the individual’s point of view. Most intriguing to me was that anthropologist Dennis Tedlock was focusing on individuals’ voices, something that had not occurred to me as an essential part of the stories. But of course the voice is what makes an audience attentive to storytelling. 

Tedlock devised a means of transcription to reflect the speech patterns of the Zuni Indians by suggesting rise and fall, loud and soft, and short and long pauses as well as unique rhythms, by the typescript he used. I decided to follow his example. 

The typewriter had more advantages right on the keyboard for making all the distinctions.  On the computer, it would take me ages, for example, to make an arched line out of a word. However, I have done my best below to show you what would happen if you wrote a subject’s words with the pauses breaking lines, volume in BOLD and emphasis in italics.  This is from Alice Heil who had lived on her parents’ farm for 75 years. My portrait of her is at the bottom of the post.



…He’d be here yet, if his boy

was alive, you know.

But when his boy’s children went,

That was the end.

He went back –

Florida, I think –

Someplace south.



Oh my uncle lived right across

On the other road.

And let’s see…

There was a fellow who lived out here, in the old building.

Well, they all moved out.  Oh boy.

And then the neighbors

moved in.

Like from Chicago, a couple of ‘em came in, and now look –

how many neighbors we have!

The last five years, I’d say.  Boy-oh-boy!


Ohhhhhhh yah, beeeeyoootifullll woods!

We had oooooooohhh woods here that no axe had been in.

You know – timber – nice!

A bunch here, a bunch there, maybe a couple a miles apart

or something.

We used to go

from one bunch

of timber to the next.

The next day we may take another bunch, how far we git.

Oh we usedta pick a lotta ginseng,

a lot of it.  But then it wasn’t worth much.

Now, it’s worth a lotta money,

from sixty-to-seventy-dollars-a-pound, dried,

but where do you find it?

Oh yah.

The land is just about all bought up.

The timber is just about all cut off.

People are getting cattle,

and cattle like ginseng, they eat ‘em,


we don’t have much chance !



When Dad bought the land,
the sawmill was going
across the other road yet,
about a mile from here.
He bought it from Jack Green, that was the man that had
the saw mill
and logged most of it off.
He worked summer and winter.  They had a railroad track
about a mile, mile-and-a-half, straight across.
And the railroad track went way up to the woods and then
they’d haul it down to Mosinee with trains.
that was all right.  But there was no clearing, there was
no nothing.
And there was
trees, small trees that they had cut down and let lay,
you know.
So when Dad and Uncle bought that [land] over there
we bought the place
for a dollar a acre,
at that time.
Now it’s worth a thousand a acre!

Well, Dad hadda clear land
to build a log house.
We built one.
It was thirty, thirty-foot-long.
We lived in that for years.
May was living alone in the wintertime

Ma and I –
and one year we had a teacher
staying with us,

And Dad had to work in the woods – well he got twelve
and fourteen dollars a month.
And then, in-between time, he had t’be cutting land,
and-kept-on-working-and-clearing more-land.  Well we worked
like niggers – what for?
What will we get out of it?  We can’t live
for ever!
I dunno.  That was silly.


Oh yah.
I liked it.
But the dayyysss were lonnnggg and hard!
I worked like a man.
After I got old enough, I had to drive the horses.
You know –
skid rows, pull stumps out, and make post holes.
Make fences out of stumps.
You didn’t have money to buy wire.
Soooooooo, you hadda dooooooo the way you could.

Oh, I used to do
anything there was to do
on the farm
after we got clearing.
I could plow with the hand plow we had,
and the riding plow we had,
and drive the horses.
Dad usually bought bucky ones because he got them for
Oh boy, and then you’d have to fight with them, oh boy.
Well, a bucky horse is some that is like that,
all-ways.  Unless you can master ‘em.  They have to knowww
that they can’t get awaayyy
with their dirt!
If they got broke in it’s all right, but you can’t depend
on ‘em, you know.
They’re miserable things. Yah.

Not now.  No.  No.  No.  No.
I couldn’t handle, I couldn’t get a harness on one now.
I haven’t had horses, I think, ten years.
But I do like ‘em.  I like the horses all right.


After we got more clearing and could raise
corn and stuff,
then we raises . . .
oh, everything.
Chickens.  Sheep.
Oh Cattle.

More work, it was all right.
More money.
At first we didn’t have ‘lectrizity,
we didn’t have no con-ven-iences, it was a cookstove,
that you used with wood, you know.
‘S’all right.

I like ‘em because they’re quick,
but I don’t like ‘em when they burn out on ya, that I
don’t like.  I’ve had that happen twice.
It scares the wits outa ya.
Well this one I think I’m gonna get rid of.
It’ an old, old stove.

don’t like that burning-out in there.
And you can’t get one,
the parts!
Now another one burnt out.
And you can’t git such a stove so you can git that part,
you know, it’s different.
Now they are al modererrrnnnn.

Well, there’s a wood stove on this one, but I don’t like it.
That’s one wood stove that I don’t like.
The thing is long enough in there,
but you can’t put a long piece of wood in there!
You gotta take all the lids off.
And take the middle piece out.
Spo you can get a long piece of wood in.
And it smokes!  Ach!
I dunno.  I think I’m going to get me a different stove
purty soon.
When they get through with the hay up.



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