When my grandmother asked if I’d interview her for a project that the public radio station was hosting in her hometown of Indianapolis, I knew she meant StoryCorps. Naturally, I said yes.
I routinely linger in my car, listening to the StoryCorps excerpts aired weekly on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” day-brightening audio clips of ordinary people reminiscing about their lives. While I’d often thought it would be neat to visit a StoryCorps recording booth with my 86-year-old grandmother, it seemed unlikely we’d get to the permanent studio in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Then a StoryCorps MobileBooth rolled into town.
The gleaming Airstream trailer, one of two that travel the United States, was a surprisingly comfortable spot for our 40-minute conversation about Grandma’s life. We sat at a table with two large microphones in front of us; StoryCorps staffer Yuki Aizawa ran a sound check, and then we began.
As with any oral history project, the key is asking the right questions to engage the storyteller. So before our interview, I consulted StoryCorps’ online Question Generator <storycorps.net/participate/question_generator>. typed in our names and our relationship to each other, and the site produced a list of questions about growing up, marriage and raising children, working, war experiences and more. I checked off a dozen questions, then edited and rearranged them. I shared them with Grandma in advance, so we were both comfortable with the direction of our chat.
We talked about her parents, her upbringing, her marriage, her three children. We talked about how she supported herself after my grandfather died. And we talked about her experiences as a “celebrity”: You may know my grandmother as Dave’s Mom, who puts her son firmly in his place during segments on “Late Show with David Letterman.” She described her trips to the Winter Olympic Games in Norway and Japan as a “Late Show” correspondent, and her annual Thanksgiving Day appearances on the program.
Grandma couldn’t have imagined her life would take the unusual turns it has. And this 40-minute capsule hardly seems to capture her 86 years. But our StoryCorps session was an important way for us to connect and share. When our interview ended, we received a CD recording, a copy of which will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. What we really walked away with, though, was another fond memory.
Interested in learning more? The StoryCorps Web site offers great resources for gathering oral histories, including a do-it-yourself guide. The site’s Question Generator is helpful, even if you don’t participate. You also can find dates and locations for both MobileBooths.