Taping Interview Sold Story

I’m interviewing my mother-in-law while she tells me about her early years. Why you might ask? Well, she’s going to turn 90 years old in a couple weeks. There is so much about her life that should be interesting to her grandchildren and great grandchilden since life today is so different from when she was born.


We’re thankful that this woman is one sharp minded cookie and able to be a main stay in our lives as long as we can keep her with us. She has been dubbed Little Grandma because she’s an agile, healthy four feet eleven inches example to live by. Her life long passions have been two. First one is her faith. She knows all the stories in her well worn bible. Second is growing flowers and plants of all kinds. I’ve never seen anyone else that has a thumb as green as hers. We both started out with rose cuttings in June from the same plants. Her rose cuttings are alive and growing. Mine dried up a long time ago. I’m used to this problem and always know I can get another start from Mom when she has her plants big enough to share.

This lady is busy in the summer raising many flowers, which cover much of her large yard, and a large garden from which she freezes the bounty and gives much of the veggies away. She has given the coming of her 90th birthday much thought. Recently, she told my husband not to till up her garden this fall. We should wait and see how she feels about planting a garden next spring. I told her to look ahead. She’s only as old as she feels. She said age was a state of mind. She’d do what she was able to do as long as she could.

In the fall, she always takes in cuttings from her houseplants and keeps them alive all winter until time to set them out again. If she loses a plant she bemoans the fact as if she’s had a death in the family. I take my cues from this woman so I’m ready preparing for fall and winter, too. Working in a flower bed is much easier to do if the weather is warm.

I use a tape recorder to document Mom’s answers to my questions about the last century. Where did I get the idea to tape someone’s story? Several years ago, I taped a resident at the nursing home. That happened because one evening at their dinner hour, I told everyone in the dining room the Good Old Days magazine bought my fourth story from me.

The woman said, "I have stories."
Afraid of where this was leading, I replied, "The magazine likes pictures with the stories."
"I have pictures," she insisted.
"The pictures have to be in black and white," I countered.
"They are."
"The story has to be before 1960," I said.
"It is."
"Let me guess. You want me to write a story for you."
Grinning widely, she nodded in the affirmative.

My day off was coming up. So if nothing else, why not share my time to reminsce with this woman. Spending time with a lonely person is a good way to volunteer. This lady happened to be a resident that had very little company. So I set up a meeting in the conference room one morning. I wanted this lady to think I was sincerely interested in helping her so I took my tape player and plenty of tapes. By taping the conversation, I wouldn’t forget details about her story, and I’d be paying closer attention to her if I wasn’t always writing down notes.

We went through her picture album together. She introduced me to her relatives and shared her early life with me. When the hour was up, I pushed her to the dining room for lunch and left. If nothing else came from that meeting, I was sure she had a good time remembering the past with someone who really listened to her and was interested enough to ask questions.

When I listened to the tapes, my idea as to write a story to give the resident. That should make her happy. The more I listened I realized what stood out was Sunday afternoons spent at her grandparents with a whole house full of relatives. Potluck for lunch, baseball in the afternoon with cousins and later rides on Grandpa’s white horse. What I heard on my tapes was this lady has a speech pattern I wouldn’t have used if I had taken handwritten notes. I’m told I write the way I talk. That’s what readers that know me say anyway. Taking the story from the tape, I was able to write her story in her words the way she spoke them. At that point, I recognized a story that had selling possibilities if I submitted it to Good Old Days magazine. Families don’t get together like they used to when all the relatives lived close by.

I read the story to the resident. She approved. I submitted the story to the Good Old Days. The by line had her name as told by me which I’d seen others do on several submissions. I explained in my submission letter that this woman was in a nursing home. I didn’t know if her story was something the magazine wanted but the woman had fun telling this story, and I enjoyed listening to it. To my surprise and everyone else’s, our story was accepted and published in the July 2007 issue of Good Old Days specials – Family Get-Togethers.

The resident was so proud. She told everyone she was a published author. The activity director had an activity just for her. The two of them sat in front of an audience at the nursing home while the activity director read her story. The other residents clapped their approval which made that woman glow. That short hour I spent with her taping her story gave her a shining moment that lasted for days as she repeatiedly told people she was a published author. Selling another one of my stories was great, but the bonus was how I brightened her days. I will always be glad I did that for her.

Now I’m taping my mother-in-law’s story. She speaks with a southern accent and a speech pattern from the 20’s and 30’s. I couldn’t duplicate that without the aid of a tape player. What am I going to do with this story? She’s already warned me I am not to make a book out of it that would be published to the world. I assured her my intention was to give her life story in book form to the following generations as her legacy to them. Besides, I can always use the writing practice.

At our first taping, I ran out of questions. Mom’s daughter that had this idea came up with suggestions. Since then we’ve had another taping. I found a way to come up with more questions by then. Last Thursday, my husband and I went to the Old Thrasher Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Talk about going back in the past. We took a trolley ride, watched school in session in a one room school house, saw rugs made on a loom and quilting in an 1850 log cabin. Everything is exhibited for men and women from steam engines and old tractors.

For women, there is a reminder of how far we’ve come from the drudgery of the past when I looked at wood cook stoves, lye soap, wash boards, sad irons and much more. My mind was on my mother-in-law’s story. I took pictures of what might have been used in her lifetime as well as pictures of signs describing what we now think of as antiques. So Saturday afternoon, I had another round of questions for Mom. After about 90 minutes, my sister-in-law and I ran out of questions again. Now I’m working on a new list for the next time.

Mom asked me how I was going to put the story together. I told her we skipped around in her life so this would take time. A story that will be a good winter project. Could it be she is eager to see this book she was hesitate about in the beginning? I explained I’d have to make chapters and add each story to the chapter it fit into as I put her life in order by years. Also, I want to make this a history lesson for the children, this story is intended for, so I will add who was president, the depression era, and other history events in a time line with her life.

She’s not so suspicious of my motives now. In fact, she was eager to start talking and thought of events like the pie socials and winter sled rides through the timber to her grandparents that I wouldn’t know to ask about. It’s a good thing I didn’t have to take notes, because I listened too intently to write details down. Whether you are a writer or not, take it from me that time gets away from busy families. I have lost many elderly relatives that could have told me the stories Mom is telling. Events have come to my attention that made me regret I didn’t ask questions when my parents were alive. This time, I’m making sure the next generations will know this grandma. The next time I have the opportunity to tape someone it might be to sell another story. This is a method that works for me.

Am I always looking for a good story and characters that stand out? Sure I am. Mom didn’t say I couldn’t use a likeness of her character with a different name in a fiction book. But just to be on the safe side now that I have her talking, let’s keep this our little secret.


This is a cross-posting from Fay Risner‘s Booksbyfay blog.