Roots author Alex Haley once said, “In every conceivable manner, family is the link to our past, the bridge to our future.” These are wise words, but most of us fail to ask our parents about their pasts, the family tree and our own childhoods until it’s too late. You may have already lost a parent, and if you haven’t, you may be facing that unfortunate circumstance before long.

By Judy Burnett

In the coming winter days, set aside some time to sit down with your parents and, with a video camera or digital tape recorder at hand, ask a few questions so that you can record an oral family history. It may take more than one session to get all of your questions answered. Begin the conversation by letting your parents know how important their memories are to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Here are 40 questions to use as a starting point (you may want to add to this list). These questions should lead to some enlightening and entertaining conversations with your mom or dad. You’ll learn things about them you never knew, and you’ll probably come away with an increased understanding and respect for their lives, the choices they’ve made and the challenges they’ve overcome.

  1. What were the full names, dates of birth and places of birth of your parents and grandparents?
  2. What were the occupations of your parents?
  3. What do you remember most about your mother?
  4. What do you remember most about your father?
  5. What do you remember most about your grandparents?
  6. Are there any other family members you particularly remember? What makes them stand out in your mind?
  7. Where were you born? Were you born in a hospital, at home or elsewhere?
  8. How many children were in your family? Did any of your siblings die at a young age?
  9. What do you remember most about your childhood?
  10. Where did you grow up? What was your neighborhood like?
  11. What was your favorite pet when you were a child?
  12. Did you have a nickname as a child? How did you get it?
  13. When you were young, did you ever collect anything?
  14. Where did you go to grammar school, high school, and college or trade/technical school?
  15. Who was your best friend as a child?
  16. Who was your best friend in high school?
  17. How would people who knew you in high school describe you?
  18. Were there any subjects or teachers you particularly liked or disliked? Why?
  19. Were you involved in any school sports or clubs?
  20. What did you want to be when you grew up?
  21. What was your first job? How much money did you make?
  22. What was your first car? And who paid for it?
  23. Who was your first date?
  24. How many times have you been in love?
  25. How did you meet my mom/dad?
  26. Was it love at first sight?
  27. What was your proposal like?
  28. Where was your wedding? How many people attended? Did you have a honeymoon?
  29. Have you been married more than once?
  30. What family trip do you remember most?
  31. What is the funniest family story you remember?
  32. Did you served in the Armed Forces? What branch? When? Where?
  33. Did you ever fight in a war-time battle? Where?
  34. Did you ever protest, such as against the Vietnam War or for Civil Rights?
  35. Did you ever have any serious illnesses or accidents?
  36. Did I ever have any serious illnesses or accidents?
  37. What is your favorite book, movie and song?
  38. What is the thing you wanted most that you haven’t gotten?
  39. What is the saddest event of your life?
  40. What is your happiest memory?

Ask your parents to share their memories with you now so they will not be lost forever.