One of the first things I learned when beginning to research my family history is to begin by collecting all the information you can from your living relatives. I started gathering information from them what I was twelve, and I'm glad I did. As I grew older, other pursuits got in the way of my research. Life became more complicated as I went to college, got married, and raised a family. My research was put on hold; my files gathering dust. Now, as I'm reaching the half-century mark, I find that I have more time to devote to research, but most of those family members are gone. The information I gathered years ago is helpful, but now with an adult perspective, there is so much more I would like to ask.
The holiday time is a perfect time to reminisce and talk about family. I like to ask open-ended questions, such as, "What was she like when you were growing up?" Family photos are also a great memory jogger and are usually an enjoyable way to learn little family details. It's amazing how much a person will recall about the circumstances behind the taking of that photograph. My mother could remember the color of every single item of clothing in every photo. It's also a great time to find out how Cousin Allen is related to you. "Is he Grandpa's or Grandma's nephew?" "Who were his parents?" "Whose house is that in the background?" "What street was it on?" Not only is it fun to learn these tidbits, all the answers give clues for research as well as enriching the family history.
I have learned to keep asking the same questions; each time I learn a little something new. Over the years, I can't tell you how many times my dad and I spoke about his father, who had died when my dad was a boy. I'd update him on what new bit of information my research revealed. Only recently during one such conversation did my dad mention that he had his father's Boatswain's pipe from World War 1. All those times talking and something I said that time sparked a memory so he could remember to tell me that he had that pipe!
Sometimes a sad event, such as a funeral, will prompt family stories. Recently, my maternal grandmother died. Although I had seen photos of my dad as a child, I didn't have any of my mother. After attending the funeral, my mother came home with a box full of photos. After going through them with her and learning about the other family members in the photos, she revealed that she's had her baby book all along. Amazing! Inside that baby book is a list of people who visited and gave gifts, as well as a small family tree.
So, a lesson I've learned — keep asking questions about family. Sometimes, something you talk about will make that memory connection in your relative; you may wind up with a box full of memories to serve as clues for research, as well as wonderful stories that will make your family history come alive.