When I was about 21 years old, my grandmother used to tell me stories about an aunt named Cora Leicher Fischer who lived in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. Cora was 97 years old, blind as can be and had spit and vinegar running through her veins. She was like all the Leichers. Cora was legendary for her strong will and her knack for remembering the smallest details. She was the sister of my great-grandfather. She was born in 1887 and outlived her brother (my grandfather) by more than two decades. Family was always important to Cora, so before she went blind she took it upon herself to memorize all the family history, including the stories, names, and dates.
All of Aunt Cora’s siblings, cousins and most of her children had died long before her. I’m sure she was lonely and she loved to talk. Unfortunately, I was a poor college student then and couldn’t afford to buy a plane ticket to fly to Wisconsin and spend a week talking with Aunt Cora. So I came up with a creative alternative that is still as valid today as it was 36 years ago.
I went down to the local Radio Shack store and I bought a tap for recording telephone conversations for about $14. Back then we didn’t have cordless phones, so I used it with my old standard wall mount phone, which worked great. Today, I’ve found that similar attachments are available for nearly every type of phone, including cell phones.
I wrote to Cora explaining what I wanted to do and she was delighted. We arranged that every Sunday afternoon from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. I would call her and we would talk for two hours. I was worried that this would be too much time on the phone for her, but she would not hear of it! We spent the next several months recording her stories and her feelings about everything imaginable.
I had no idea it would be so easy getting the oral histories of relatives that lived so far away. Ideally I would have loved to have gone to their homes and visited with them, viewing their photographs, and talking to other nearby relatives. Since I could not afford to do that, however, this was a low cost solution to gather those family stories. All it took was an inexpensive phone adapter, some tapes, and that was about it. Nowadays, long distance calling is usually rolled in to most phone plans, so there’s no extra cost. Plus, older relatives love knowing that someone will call every week just to talk to them, that someone is interested in hearing about their lives.
If you have some older relatives who live far away from you, try doing a long-distance oral history. It’s an easy, fun, and rewarding way to capture those important family stories.