Things to Ask Your Grandparents Before They Are Gone

It’s human nature to take your family for granted, but once they die, you realize there were many things you don’t know about them. Don’t let the time get away from you. Your grandparents won’t be here forever.

grandma gail

Gail with a granddaughter and 2 great-granddaughters

Here are things to find out before it is too late.

Names and Dates of Their Parents and Grandparents

Find out the full names, nicknames, places they lived, and dates of their birth, marriage, and death. These are the links to your ancestry, so don’t miss the chance to get this information. Too many people just know their own parents’ names and grandparents. Asking your grandparents for details about their own parents and grandparents takes you back four generations. This can be a huge help if you try to piece together your ancestry later.

Favorite Recipes

If you love your grandmother’s chicken and noodles and the way your grandfather slow-cooks beef brisket, ask now. Write the recipes down and try them out, then ask for clarification and tips if the results aren’t as good as theirs. Sometimes, it’s hard to get the same ingredients like farm-fresh eggs so your cooking effort may not taste just like your grandma’s.

recipe carrot cookies

Family Illnesses

Do certain kinds of cancer show up again and again in the family? Maybe there’s a pattern of heart problems. Find out what caused the deaths of your great-grandparents. Such knowledge helps you take preventive steps and make lifestyle changes.

Family Secrets

If there is some topic that the family tiptoes around and never discusses, ask the grandparents. What really happened to Uncle Billy who disappeared? Why do two cousins never speak to each other? Why did the family leave the Old Country?

Their Memories of a Bygone Era

What was it like during World War II? Find out details about their daily life as a child and how times have changed. Try to save these memories by writing them down or videotaping your grandparents. Get out the photo album and ask questions about the people in the pictures.


Gail’s uncle, Albert Vining in World War I

Someone Has to be the Family Historian

(Virginia Allain wrote this 4 years ago shortly after her mother’s death)

When the keeper of the family history dies, it puts at risk the accumulated knowledge of many generations. Who will carry on the family stories, preserve the family photographs, and track the important family dates?

Although I’ll get some help from my sisters, it seems that I’m now the designated family historian. I’m honored that they entrusted me with the room full of family history files and genealogy binders and boxes of vintage photos. Our mom, Gail Lee Martin, worked diligently over the years accumulating and sorting all the information.

my writing notebooks

Gail’s shelves above her computer. Her son, Owen, built the shelving for her.

In the years before the Internet, she visited courthouses and cemeteries, wrote lots of letters, squinted over reels of microfilm and painstakingly recorded what she found into notebooks. Thank goodness I’m a librarian and fortunately, a retired one with the time to take it on. Carrying on the family history is right up my alley.

Last year I joined a genealogy club in my community and I’ve been researching with for several years. My mother and I worked on two books that I self-published for her. Three more were underway. I guess you could say that I’ve been in training to assume this role.

As I packed up her papers, I began to realize the days, weeks and years of research that it represented. Thank you, Mom, for all that you did to save the family stories for future generations.


The Martin/McGhee family history stored on shelves and in cupboards in its new home.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this, I’ve created a Martin/McGhee family blog called Then and Now. It has 58 family history stories so far that includes the Vining, Joy, Stone, Tower, and Kennedy lines as well.

This blog, Discovering Mom, was started in May 2013 and I have added 240 posts on it.

I hope to self-publish in 2017 a book about Gail Lee Martin’s 1940s years. This will include her last year of high school, the WWII years, and the first five years of marriage.

I’ve created our family tree on Ancestry so others can find the information Mom collected and what I’ve added to it. So far, it contains 4,810 people, 2,482 photos, and 230 stories.

There is still much work to do in preserving the family history and making it accessible to others.

Back to Work on Family History

I need to buckle down and delve into my mother’s genealogy notebooks. The first year after her death, I didn’t have the heart to start working on them. Over the last couple of years, I’ve dipped into them now and then, but haven’t really worked on them.

Now enough time has passed that I’m ready to move forward. My online writing on other topics has reached a plateau. That leaves me free time to transfer information from Mom’s notebooks to my tree on She worked on the family history before the proliferation of online genealogy information. Now, it’s time to make her research accessible to others through these websites, through blogs and through self-published books.


A chart in one of Gail Lee Martin’s genealogy notebooks.


Mom collected this information over years of painstaking research that involved visits to courthouses, libraries, and cemeteries. She strained her eyes to read through reels and reels of microfilm ordered from the government. She wrote to distant relatives. She visited ones within driving distance. Then, she carefully documented what she learned.

I have several contacts asking for family records, so that will spur me into researching those requested topics. I also need to contact older relatives for information they may have.

I hope to assemble photos and stories from Mom’s charts and notes into blog posts on our family history site on WordPress. The name of the blog is Then and Now but mostly it is about the past. Drop by now and then to see what I’ve posted recently.

If you have a membership to Ancestry, my profile name on there is vallain159.

N is for Never Ninety

I wanted my mother to live forever, I guess. Even though I knew that wasn’t realistic, I was hopeful that she’d live well into her nineties at least. After all, her grandmother lived to be 91 and great-grandfather lived to 92. Her Aunt Bertha lived to 96 and Aunt Vina to 94.

Those are all from the Tower line in our family. It’s pretty remarkable for people born in the 1800s to live that long. I was hoping that those Tower genes would carry Mom along into the nineties too.

We had worked together to complete the two books, Mom’s memoir and the collected stories about Dad’s life. I’d hoped the three works-in-progress gave her some incentive to hang around. I really needed her input on our Civil War ancestor’s book and on Aunt Bertha’s biography.

The book includes her prize-winning essay on "My Mother's Apron."

My mother’s memoir.

They say that having a passion for something contributes to longevity. Sadly, she did not regain her zest for writing and research and genealogy after Dad died. Her health issues and missing her spouse of 67 years dragged her down. She died of a broken hip followed by a heart attack at 88.

Now it is up to me to make those books happen. I worry that there will be gaps that I can’t fill without her knowledge of family history. I worry that I can’t tell the stories like she could.

Knowing that they won’t be perfect, I need to go forward with the projects. It is what she would want. Here’s hoping I live until 99 to complete all the family projects.

The book about Dad.

The book about Dad.

L is for Living in the Good Old Days

Sometimes people complain that life is too rushed, too complicated, too expensive now. Contemplate what your life would be like 60 or 70 years ago. Think of the 1930s, 1940s.

You were likely to be living in a rural area or a small town at that time. The children attended school in a one-room or two room school-house. There was an outhouse out back or if the area was very progressive, an indoor bathroom.

Look at the clothes. The dresses might be made from printed feedsack material sewn on a Singer sewing machine. On wash day, a wringer washing machine made life easier than the previous generation’s washtub and scrub board. If you had young children, there were no disposable diapers or diaper services. Those stinky cloth diapers had to be washed too. Everything was hung out on the clothesline even in freezing weather.

From our family album, a 1930s picture. My mother is the littlest girl standing in the doorway. The others are her cousins.  Teterville, Kansas

From our family album, a 1930s picture. My mother is the littlest girl standing in the doorway. The others are her cousins.
Teterville, Kansas

Most of your food was grown at home and preserved by canning. Putting a meal on the table might involve catching the chicken, wringing its neck and plucking the feathers before you cooked it.

A wood stove in the living room heated the house. Cutting and stacking the wood in preparation for the winter was laborious. The stove didn’t heat the whole house very well, so in the morning frost coated the insides of the bedroom windows.

Many of my mother’s stories of her childhood are lovingly nostalgic, but would she have wanted to go back to a time without modern conveniences? Would you? Tell me your feelings on this.

K is for Keeper of Family Treasures

As the generation that came of age during World War I passed away, my mother assumed the role of preserving the memories of her parents and her aunts and uncles.

A number of her elderly relatives had no children to leave their photos, diaries, and special pieces to, so they handed them along to my mother.

One of the family portraits that came into Mom's keeping.

One of the family portraits that came into Mom’s keeping.

The family treasures like Uncle Albert’s WWI diary and his military helmet were safe in her care. These were entrusted to her by Albert’s widow, Vina. Mom visited Vina in the nursing home and gathered tidbits of family history from her. On the wall of Mom’s writing room hung the whatnot shelf that Albert made.

Here's Albert Vining's shelf that he made. Mom used to keep books on it in her writing room.

Here’s Albert Vining’s shelf that he made. Mom used to keep books on it in her writing room.

When her Aunt Bertha died, Mom preserved the photo album filled with vintage black-and-white pictures showing Bertha and the Navajo children in New Mexico where she worked in 1929 and 1930.

Bertha McGhee's photo from her time teaching in Farmington, New Mexico.

Bertha McGhee’s photo from her time teaching in Farmington, New Mexico.

Of course, no one person can save everything from previous generations, but my mother made a valiant effort to gather and write the stories from earlier generations of McGhees, Towers, Vinings, Martins, Joys and Kennedys. She served as the family historian or the archivist. She published many of the stories in Kanhistique, but that magazine has ceased publication.

These issues featured Gail Lee Martin's articles.

These issues featured Gail Lee Martin’s articles.

Now the photos, the letters, the diaries and her writings are in my keeping. I’ll do my best to maintain them and feature them for others to enjoy just like my mother did before me.

Here’s where I’ve showcased Albert Vining’s WWI experience: Albert Vining in WWI. The plan for Bertha McGhee’s photos, diary and letters is to make a book with those. We started this project together, but now I must carry it on solo.

You can read more about Bertha McGhee here: Navajo School – Farmington NM 1929-1931 and Bertha McGhee – Missionary from Kansas.

I’m a Woman on a Mission

I inherited my mother’s genealogy and family history files and writings two years ago. I feel it is my mission now to get as much information and pictures online as possible for the next generation to access. These bits of paper are our ancestor’s legacy to preserve and share.

So far, I’m taking a shotgun approach, spreading the material across a number of blogs, in Facebook groups, on my web pages created on Hubpages and even some on a site called Bubblews.

The Bubblews postings were part of a 52 Ancestors challenge. I pledged to write one family history piece a week for a whole year. Sadly, I’ve fallen behind on that.

The blogs are on WordPress and have titles like Then and Now and of course, here on  Discovering Mom: Gail Lee Martin. My Facebook groups focus on specific family names and pull together my cousins to share family stories and photos. We’ve had some success getting unlabeled photos identified which pleases me greatly.

I want to complete 3 family history books with the material too. Daunting task.

To keep me moving along, I’ve joined an A to Z blogging challenge for April. That keeps me on my toes to post something new each day here matching the letter of the alphabet.

I hope you’ll be right here reading the posts and cheering me on. You can subscribe to the blog if you want to get a notice for posts.

The family archives on the shelves and in the cupboards. Safe for now.

The family archives on the shelves and in the cupboards. Safe for now.