We’ve all heard grandpa’s stories of walking miles to school, all uphill. We roll our eyes and say to each other, “Yup, and it was uphill both ways”.
But if we are to expect our children and their children to understand the world our grandparents lived in we have to look at the expectations that were placed on them. Through our questions we must try to understand that earlier world, both for ourselves and for those younger than us. For them it is an even stranger existence to imagine.
We can recall all the comments: That a mile or two was nothing much to walk, even in a prairie winter. That older kids looked out for younger ones. That the teacher was always right. That children didn’t interrupt their elders, (and that’s if they got to speak at all). That your neighbours were Mr and Mrs Smith and not Bill and Maureen.
What did it feel like to struggle through snow and cold before and after school? How did you dry your wet clothes? How was the classroom heated? What if you were little and you couldn’t keep up to the older kids? Did you ever get the strap? In front of all the other kids? Why did your parents read a chapter from the Bible every night?
That, as children, our grandparents did not have television, computers, cell phones is common enough knowledge. It’s fact. Ways of thinking, feelings and beliefs are harder to get across. What was it like to have neighbours listen in on a party line? Who was the first person you knew who had a television set? When you first got a TV, what did you like to watch? Who chose what you would listen to on the radio? What would you have rather listened to? And why? The ‘why’ will reveal character.
What customs did you have that sound impossible now? (“As kids, we couldn’t open our Christmas gifts till grandma had had her second cup of tea. And she drank so slowly!”) Tell me about meal times? Who was served first? What was your favourite meal of the week?
If grandparents have lived through the Depression, it would be interesting to ask how life changed for them then, and what they might have learned from it. Was their father out of work? How did mom keep the family together? If they lived through war time they will have had experiences that shaped them. “What was it like when your dad was away? Did your mom go out to work then?”
There is little point in asking an older person questions, such as “Why were older people so much respected then?” You’ll get an answer like “Well, they just were. That’s the way it was”. Only a sociologist could answer the question. This is the time for questions that start “How did you feel about… What did you like/not like about…”
Often the ‘feeling’ and ‘liking’ questions elicit details that you can expand on to get a deeper picture of the life and times. Put yourself in the shoes of the kid in too-big snow boots, or waiting for a letter from dad in the Army. How do you think he feels?