Can’t visit family? Interview them instead.

After my father died, my sister called up our oldest surviving relative, my great aunt Bebe who lives in Florida, and they ended up having several conversations. The things she told us about our family have been delightful (and occasionally insane).

We knew, for instance, that my mother was pregnant when my parents got married, but here’s a part of the story we never heard:

When my father was 19, he needed an emergency appendectomy, but his mother was away on vacation. They wouldn’t operate on him without a relative signing for permission, or possibly to pay for it.
So my great aunt Bebe goes to the hospital and there is my mother, age 18, in the waiting room all upset, because, since she’s not a relative, they won’t let her up to see him. Bebe had never met her before.
Bebe signs the papers and goes up to see my father, and he says, “I want to see my girlfriend.” And Bebe explains that she can’t come up because she’s not a relative. So my father says, “She’s not my girlfriend. She’s my wife!” and passes out.

Later he explains that she is pregnant and they had gotten married by a justice of the peace. But when my mother’s parents found out, they put together a fancy wedding with a caterer and a rabbi; so they kept the justice of the peace a secret.

We are not actually sure if this story is true! We talked it over and the details don’t quite make sense. But my Aunt Bebe loves a good story, and this is a pretty good story. 

This Thanksgiving, we’re regretfully foregoing a family gathering because, as much as we love our relatives, we don’t want to host a superspreader event — and spending time indoors, with masks off, with people you don’t already live with, seems to be ideal conditions for spreading the virus, sometimes with deadly consequences for people who weren’t even there

If you’re in the same boat and you can’t spend time with family in person, why not take the opportunity to interview them by phone or video? Yes, even the people you think you already know well. They probably have some stories you’ve never heard before.

I’ve written about this before — how I did some interviews with my father, but not as much as I would have liked, and how I missed my chance to interview my mother. We spent countless hours together, but there are some things I never thought to ask until it was too late.

With a planned interview, you may have a deeper conversation than if everyone were sitting in the same room, but just eating pie and chatting; and the time and attention could be a real boon to older relatives who’ve been especially isolated. Taking time to listen intently to someone’s memories is a wonderful way to show love, and it may very well end up being fascinating for you.

Consider recording the conversation so you can save it for posterity (with the person’s permission, of course!). Here’s how to record a Zoom conversation; an iPhone conversation; an Android conversation;  a Facebook video chat

Here are some questions you can ask, to get things started. And it’s okay if they wander and answer questions you didn’t ask! 

What’s the earliest memory you have? 

When you were little, what was your favorite place to go or thing to do? What was your favorite food? What was your least favorite food?

Who were your friend when you were growing up? What did you do together?

What do you remember about your parents from your childhood? What did they do for work? Did you get along with them? What did they do in their spare time? 

What was your first job? What did you do with the money you earned? 

Who was your favorite teacher? Who was your least favorite? 

Who did you admire when you were growing up? Did that change? 

What (or who) were you afraid of when you were growing up? Did that change?

What’s the first movie you remember seeing? 

How did you meet your first girlfriend/boyfriend? How did you meet the person you eventually married? 

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did things work out as you expected? 

Do you think kids today have things better or worse than you did?

If you have kids, ask them for question ideas, too. They will probably be curious about things that didn’t occur to you. 

The virus is taking so much away from us, but this could be a chance to gain something really precious. If you do it, tell me how it goes! 

Liked it? Take a second to support simchajfisher on Patreon!

22 thoughts on “Can’t visit family? Interview them instead.”

  1. Interviewing relatives is a great idea. Your article did not spend much time talking about masks but the commenters seem like that’s all they want to talk about. Masks are a joke. There is no evidence that the way they are worn do any good. A recent study of 6000 mask wearers in Denmark showed just that. They have become the great sign of virtue signaling. Wearing a mask as you walk through a restaurant full of non mask wearers and then taking it off at the table is a serious joke. I saw two young girls walking yesterday outside in the country wearing their masks. What a joke. If they get it they probably might not realize it (80% of young people may show no symptoms according a recent report). Covid 19 is such a horrible you have to be tested to know if you have it. Come on people this is not the bubonic plague. If you have friends or relatives who know how small a virus particle is, if they know how large the voids are in masks, who know how people jerk at their masks all day long and touch things, and they choose not to be all gung ho about wearing them, please don’t criticize them. They have science on their side.

    1. Science shows that masks protect the wearer to some degree, and others to a greater degree. The Danish study had serious limitations. Yes, some people who contract Covid never get symptoms, some are asymptomatic for several days before they show symptoms (thus exposing others unknowingly), and others, to the tune of 260,000 in 10 months in this country, die. Others that survive have severe longterm complications. As far as walking into a restaurant with a mask on and then removing it at the table, that’s because the tables are supposed to be 6 feet apart, but when you walk to your table you might not be 6 feet apart from tables you walk by. I myself think indoor dining is too risky, but if people insist on it, masks when walking by tables is the way to go.

      1. Another thing that’s not a joke: the hospitals all across the country that are filling up and are on the verge of rationing care, and the refrigerated morgue trucks to house the “surplus” dead bodies. A situation that will only get worse after months of cold weather and indoor holiday celebrations.

        1. I think that is a case of decades of mismanagement by city and county officials with facilities and personnel that are obviously operating just on the edge. This is not some horrible bubonic plague. Death rates from Covid for individuals below 50 is 0.08 %. The naval hospital ship sent to New York City did not take in one patient I believe. I have a son that is a doctor that worked in a converted motel on the Texas border to hold elderly patients with Covid before they were released back o the nursing homes. That is a smart thing that should be done in the future with any patient with any contagious disease. too bad some governors ordered sick elderly back into the nursing homes. There were plenty of doctors from New Jersey and New York at the Texas facility. Why? Because Covid is a cash grab. Doctors in NY and NJ were being paid $ 3000 per day.

      2. One more thing. Coughing into a Kleenex or your sleeve and washing your hands when coming in from the public is probably all we need to be doing. I have not caught the flu in 40 years and I deal with the public but I practice these basic hygiene tips.

        1. Thanks for that big revelation. Yes, hand hygiene is a great idea. The only mismanagement that has caused these astronomical numbers (both in terms of death and people who survived with longterm complications) is from our leaders and citizens who minimize the toll of this virus and refuse to take appropriate precautions to slow down the spread. As far as doctors doing this because it’s a cash grab, no amount of money is worth risking your life. Your disrespect and lack of gratitude toward the first responders is astounding.

          1. I was waiting for you to attack me personally. And yes you did. And you falsely claim hospitals and morgues are full. And you claim I don’t respect first responders. (You missed the point of my son working with Covid patients?) You brush off the Denmark research with a wave of your hand but it’s the only prospective, randomized, controlled trial evaluating the efficacy of mask wearing that we have. And it does show not that masks are effective. No other study to date is as thorough.

            1. The Danish study was very limited. It was conducted in a location that had a relatively low infection rate, and there wasn’t enough mask usage to make a big difference. There are much better studies that show that not only do masks protect others, they even provide some degree of protection to the wearer. I did not miss the part about your son being a doctor. Having a son who is a doctor does not justify your accusation of first responders as doing it for a cash grab. I most certainly did not falsely claim that hospitals and morgues are full. Some have reached capacity, some are close, and some are full enough that makeshift refrigerated morgue trucks have been brought in. That’s not false, it’s a fact. As far as a personal attack, I’m not sure where you get that. But because you’ve been waiting for it, I guess you enjoy spending Thanksgiving being a near occasion of sin for others. That’s fine with me; at least you’re not hosting or attending a super spreader event like other Covid deniers and conspiracy theorists are today.

              1. “As far as a personal attack, I’m not sure where you get that. But because you’ve been waiting for it, I guess you enjoy spending Thanksgiving being a near occasion of sin for others. That’s fine with me; at least you’re not hosting or attending a super spreader event like other Covid deniers and conspiracy theorists are today.”

                Creepy and weird.

  2. Simcha, your stories always move me. Thank you.
    I love the smiling picture of your parents.

    I simply can’t comprehend what is going on with the Catholics resisting masks. It makes no sense whatsoever. Even if you get infected, virus load matters. Masks reduce that. Why does that not make sense to them? Priests and some vocally acting in the name of orthodox Catholicism have never caused so much scandal lately.

    We all want to protect my Mom, so the main dining room table will simply be a buffet table this year.

    I hope you have a lovely and happy Thanksgiving! I have seven of my kids here with me, and the guys in my household are doing the cooking 🙂 🙂 :). My two daughters and I just got back from getting our nails done together while the men shopped. This is not to say that I didn’t cook lunch and dinner in a mundane way today. That’s fine. No glory needed for that. The boys were discussing how to marinate the ducks, while my oldest son in Oregon was calling to ask about how my husband deboned the turkey last year. (It looked like a giant turkey and stuffing sushi roll). My 83 y.o. Mom is doing the Turkey and stuffing as she usually does. My sister is doing the veggies. My guys will do the mashed potatoes and gravy.

    When my Dad was dying of cancer, he took a bit of cannabis which made him more chatty than I ever remember. It was like an unarranged interview. I doubt that my Mom will ever succumb to the hippy lettuce. 🙂

    1. Happy Thanksgiving Anna Lisa! I share your frustration over the Catholics who speak out against masks and social distancing, as if it’s some socialist plot to exert control over the masses. That view is so inconsistent with pro-life values, when you see the result of lax masking and social distancing (the currently overwhelmed hospitals, horrific death rate, etc). I mentioned in another comment that I’m blessed to live in a diocese where most (not all, but most) of the priests are faithful and Orthodox, and also promote live by promoting Covid precautions.

      1. Happy Thanksgiving Claire!

        I hope you guys are doing well. My younger kids are supposed to go back to school in hybrid form (up north near SF) but I have a hard time believing that it is going to happen. Things are not as bad up there as they are here in the south –strange how liberals take it all very seriously and the conservatives are in a weird deep denial.

        My son sent me an interesting podcast called “Ancient Heresy That Helps Us Understand QAnon”
        On the Media WNYC Studios

        It’s worth a listen. I tried to find an easy link I could put up but it comes up on Google. After listening to it last night, I realized how much my parents bought into that whole prosperity Gospel garbage. It’s a profound danger to the soul.

  3. Also, prayers for you and your family as you face your first Thanksgiving without yourself Dad.

    Eternal rest grant unto him, o Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the just, through Your mercy, rest in peace.

    1. Yes, thank you, I had forgotten that this was your first Thanksgiving without your father. Prayers that it will be a time of healing for you and your family.

  4. I like the interviewing idea. We’ve also been doing Zoom BINGO and will start Advent charades/pictionary this weekend after hosting a virtual craft day for our godchildren this weekend (get Christmas craft kits and then combine and send them out before).

    Coronavirus has made us more creative and actually more in contact with friends and family. It’s been important to recognize that people need more contact to stay happy and to not be tempted to break guidelines.

    I would encourage people to reach out to family and see what their Thanksgiving plans are. My Mom was going to have 2 people over to her household, even though all indoor gatherings are banned. She thought it was nothing compared to her best friend hosting 35 (!!!).

    We talked it through and I explained that homes are the new loci of transmission. The virus is carried on aerosols and homes are nowhere near as ventilated as stores or churches. She asked her friends to not come and she is still cooking and will deliver food and then have a Zoom dinner with them. I think she’s looking forward to the novelty. I did have to ask her not to see her friend for two weeks after that superspreader event.

  5. Yup, let them be interviewed before they die of isolation and loneliness…
    And don’t forget to wear a mask so they have no clue who you are…

    1. If you chose to read fairly, you would see that I am aware that isolation is very hard on old people, and this is a suggestion to alleviate That suffering. If you have a better idea that doesn’t result in people dying alone on a ventilator, please share it.

      1. Also, you may be under the impression that the CDC recommends wearing a mask on the phone or when on a video chat. This is false! Glad I could clear that up for you.

      2. Well said, Simcha. I’m so glad that the very faithful, orthodox priests in my diocese are pro-life enough to encourage pandemic precautions.

  6. I am an archivist and do a fair amount of genealogical research. For marriage records, the civil marriage license is usually searchable online. If your grandparents had an earlier civil marriage prior to their Jewish religious ceremony, you can probably find a record of this. I recommend this site:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *