Deceased Family Members: If Only We Had Asked Them Certain Questions

Our parents are gone. With the death of Barbara’s mother in 2020, we both had lost all four of our parents and in laws. We officially became the older generation and being in this new position offered an eerie feeling. 

One day when having a conversation about our ancestry, we mourned the fact that we hadn’t asked our parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles certain important questions when they were alive. 

We admit that at times, especially as we age, we are consumed with curiosity about who we are, where we came from, why we turned out the way we have, why we look the way we do, why we have certain skills and talents and lack others. In short, why we often act the way we do. 

There are so many holes in our stories, and we find it very frustrating at times not to have answers. It even seems disingenuous that as two journalists known for our probing and sometimes tough interviewing skills, we fell short of our reputations when it came to family queries. We tried at times, but our family members got sick, were impatient, didn’t want to delve into their pasts. Barbara’s younger daughter and husband interviewed her mom over several months, trying to fill in holes but not all. 

And now sadly It’s too late. 

Barbara’s mother wrote so much down in her journals and diaries. Barbara put aside a big box of them to read five years after her death. She needed time to digest the loss and also think back on all the stories her mom told Barbara and her friends who spent long periods at her house when her mom visited in her later years. She was a wonderful storyteller, and we often referred to her as the Jewish Scheherazade. What Barbara would like to know is more about her mother’s childhood in the Midwest, time at her uncles’ farms, how her parents’ marriage was, what college was like in that era including dating and her courtship with Barbara’s dad once she had graduated and moved to New York City for a nutrition internship. Sadly, there are no photos of Barbara’s mother in her wedding outfit, but she knows from her mother that a grandmother gave her $100 to spend on the wedding held in 1942 at her grandparents’ home. 

Barbara would have liked to know much more about her father’s days growing up in Williamsburg Brooklyn before it was chic and with immigrant parents, going to medical school at age 16 and dealing with prejudices against Jews that existed then, including from medical school admissions’ offices. Fortunately, Barbara has a cousin on her mother’s side who is the family historian for that side and can supply some of the missing links but not the most intimate details. Those are lost forever. 

In Margaret’s case, there were rumors that Margaret’s father’s older brothers might have had ties to organized crime. One of her first cousins brought this up. Margaret never asked her father about it. Perhaps she didn’t really want to know and sensed that her father didn’t want to address this either. She isn’t sure he really knew. Maybe some answers are better left in the past. 

Margaret thinks she held back asking her parents questions for various reasons. Her mother was so private and uncomfortable talking about her past. She knows very little about her mother’s family. We can’t figure out what she had to hide, if anything. 

On the other hand, her father was a wonderful storyteller. His stories, however, were sanitized and maybe even exaggerated to make them funnier and more interesting. They were often changed in the telling after being passed down and around so often that they lost their authenticity. (It’s kind of like the stories in the Bible that were told and retold and are perhaps a bit skewed.) To have the stories on record, Margaret bought a tape recorder and encouraged her father to tape his tales. But he froze. So many questions as a result remain unanswered. 

If we could roll back the clock--and many of you are still lucky enough to have one or both parents alive to do so, here are some questions to ask and spark conversations. You may use these as a script if you want to record or videotape your Q-and-A sessions. Having this information for posterity is a wonderful legacy to hand down to your progeny. Not all questions need to be answered at one time. 

  • What was your childhood like—friends, family, neighborhood, school, camp? Highlights and low points?
  • Were you born in America? If not, do you remember emigrating from the country where you were born and remember anything about that country? What was it like moving to America and being an outsider?
  • Did you experience any trauma while growing up?
  • Where did your mother and father meet; share about the courtship, wedding and in-laws? Where did they go on their first date? How long did they court, what was their wedding like, did they take a honeymoon?
  • Tell us about your early married life, where you lived, how you spent your time at work and socially? What kind of work did your do or types of jobs you held?
  • Overall, how would you describe your marriage? One of convenience. Happy. Up and down?
  • Did you move around a lot or stay put? How did you end up living in the city where you raised your kids?
  • How did you spend your days, did most of your friends work or stay home? If you (mother) stayed home, what did she do with her time?
  • Were you both content in your roles and your jobs and friendships?
  • What were your passions? Were you able to realize them?
  • Who were your good friends? What was socializing like—couples, dinners out, dinner parties, a club, sports activities, theater, vacations?
  • Did you have a few or a lot of friends and what were they like?
  • How would you describe your style of parenting? What about your parents?
  • How did you help choose schools and religious school for kids and how involved were you?
  • Were you close with siblings, parents, cousins?
  • Did you like to travel? See movies, concerts, walk, play a sport? Sing? Paint? Act? Play sports?
  • Was religion an important part of your life, or some form of spirituality? Did you marry someone from your same religion and if not, how did your parents react?
  • Did you have long-term relationships with friends from childhood and even as a couple when married?
  • How was your health and were you good about taking care of yourself? What childhood diseases did you have? Do you have any health issues in your family that could be passed on to subsequent generations?
  • What were the high points of your life as you look back, the low points? Were you ever separated from a spouse?
  • Was it hard once your children left home, married and had grandkids or wonderful? Did they include you?
  • What was it like to lose a spouse, father—death or divorce?
  • Did you have regrets as you aged?
  • How would you describe your relationship with your children, when they were young and older? 

Family folklore is part of your inheritance. Ask the questions now if you still have a parent or grandparent alive. If you didn’t ask the right questions before your relatives passed away, all you can do as you go forward is to try to plug the holes and hold on dearly to what you do have. And share stories now with your grown children so they will have a fuller picture of your life. 






  • Vicki Rashbaum Horowitz

    This article about questions I would have asked my Mom, my Dad, my grandparents, aunts and uncles and now its too late was quite meaningful to me. Recently about 4 months ago, I received a FB messenger communication from a younger cousin who sent me photos of various older generation people including my Dad. Most of these were photos I did not have. I also, in return, sent him a photo of my paternal grandmother and 3 of her children (including my Dad at about 5 years of age) from Bialystok, Poland before the family came to the USA in the early 1900s. This began a communication via email between us. Its been a real gift and I am learning so much from him and his love of Genealogy especially on my Dad’s side of the family. I am still working on collecting photos and sending emails to other cousins ….The greatest gift was receiving a photo of my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew because he died so young and left my Grandma to raise 4 children on her own in a new country. She owned a small grocery store on East 119th Street in NYC and mostly only spoke Yiddush or some English with a strong accent. Fortunately, my husband Dan “interviewed” my Dad before he died who shared a few wonderful stories from that time about my paternal grandma and how he and his older brother delivered fresh milk to the rich folks on Park Avenue in NYC so early each morning before they went to school.

  • Merri Rosenberg

    Very poignant and relatable .
    My daughter gave us( my husband and me) a subscription to Storyworth that gave us a way to share our stories with our grandchildren. A wonderful way to preserve stories and photos !

  • Audrey Steuer

    So poignant and touching. Very relatable although I can answer many of the questions you list. I am on Ancestry looking to fill in so many blanks.

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