Bob Cairns: Catch up with family history while you can

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 16, 2022

By Bob Cairns

No need for a show of hands here, but how many of us have heard ourselves say, “I wish I’d have done that?”

Right to the point here.

None of us is getting any younger, and the older members of our families have our history between their ears. While these memories are still functioning, our challenge is to record these recollections.

It’s our last shot at our family’s history, the story about our past to be passed on to future generations.

Now, just to let you know that I have practiced what I’m preaching here, I did this with my family, but I’ll also refer to my books, Pen Men “Baseball’s Greatest Bullpen Stories Told by the Men Who Brought the Game Relief,” and“V&Me, Everybody’s Favorite Jim Valvano Story.”

In writing those oral histories — equipped with my hand-held recorder — I interviewed several hundred people. Of those hundreds, at least 50 are no longer alive.

These folks’ stories (in many cases), had I not captured them, would have been gone forever. The tapes are now in the N.C. State Hunt library and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I’m not suggesting that you go to that length, only that you record your own family history.

Oh, pardon the transition, but that said, how many of us have living memories of WWII in our family?

Better get them!

OK, point made. Now let’s get busy.

Purchase (should you not have one) a hand-held recorder and a number of mini-cassettes.

OK, if you’re looking for a hand-held recorder (good old Amazon), click here. If you’d rather use a hand-held video camera, that can work as well, but bring the recorder as a backup because some people (“Oh, how do I look? Etc.”) clam up when the little red light comes on.

Identify the oldest and most lucid members of your family, the folks who know the stories and have the history. Shake your family tree until the names of these people fall like acorns. They don’t have to be elders; any of us might have stories that have been passed along over the years.

Make a list and add to this list when Cousin Mary says (during your interview), “Oh, you have to talk to Katherine, she has the best stories.” For the most part you’ll get and enjoy important, meaningful pieces of your family history.

Who knows? Katherine may even come up with something as fun and as trivial as the day your great grandfather met FDR.

Back on task. Place these names of potential interviews (or anything you ever heard these relatives relate at reunions, etc.) on a notepad in preparation of your interviews.

It’s time to turn on that hand-held recorder, and with pen in hand open a looseleaf tablet, and sit back and listen.

If the storyteller triggers another memory that you might have or even one that isn’t in your notes, make a note, and then use that note as a follow-up question.

For example: “You just mentioned our trips to the Smithsonian when we visited. I don’t recall that at all. Any specific stories from our trips there?”

Oh, here’s one. I was with my elderly aunt, an artist, and we were strolling through the National Art Gallery, and I looked up and saw the paintings of the presidents. As a joke, I said, “Doris did you paint these?” She laughed and said, “No, but I forged all their signatures.” And although I knew she’d been with the CIA her entire life, that was the day I learned that she was a professional CIA forger.

Now, if you have old family photographs (may not even know who the people are), bring them along for the interviews as they make a wonderful catalyst for conversation.

OK, say your great aunt Sue lives in California, and you’re here in North Carolina. How do you interview her? Through a series of phone calls or e-mails, arrange to carry out the interviews. There are neat little earpieces for your recorders that make this possible for phone conversations.

Oh, look for surprises. That’s one of the many joys of this process.

When you’ve interviewed everybody and anybody (it doesn’t have to be family, it can be close friends or neighbors), there are technical ways to take the spoken word and put it in writing.

I sit at my computer and type every word that’s said into a document, going back and forth with the recordings. You don’t have to do that or put yourself on a time schedule, the point being that you caught them when you could and now have the history on your tapes.

When it comes to transcribing, you can hire someone to handle this but when you hear the final interviews, although a great deal of the conversation may be unusable, you have what was said.

So, you have it word for word transcribed. Now, don’t be shy about this, when necessary, edit the heck out of it. Don’t change it; just make it make sense conversationally. Let one story lead to another to another until you have a “chapter” called, again for instance, “Aunt Esther Remembers Our Family.”

When the identifying, the questioning, the recording, the transcribing and the editing is done, read each piece carefully and if you see anything that might merit a follow-up question, (again, sometimes a phone call will do) go for it. You want the gathering to be complete!

The presentation of this oral history is the easy part. Any and every printer or printing store — Kinko’s — can take a disc of your work and present it to you in bound copies that will look like you’ve been published by Random House.

Old family photographs? Drop them into the copy. It will only enhance the history. And, hey, the finished product makes a great gift, but the gift we’re talking about here isn’t limited to a package being opened by your great aunt on Christmas morning — it’s the life story of your family, something to be enjoyed and appreciated for generations to come.

Bob Cairns is a writer who lives at High Rock Lake. His older book recommendations can be found at

About Post Lifestyles

Visit us on Facebook: and Twitter @postlifestlyes for more content

email author More by Post