Oral History

Grandma Lois with her first husband, Jerry Neal

As the root of my family, Grandma Lois is the family favorite. She is the tradition-bearer that drives this ancestry portfolio because of her strong Irish roots and heavy influence in my life. Before the oral history interview with her, I was in the process of building this portfolio through research and my own prior knowledge. After speaking with my grandma extensively, her words allowed me to attach actual stories to the historical facts. History has never interested me, but Grandma Lois made my family’s history fun to know.

In addition, this oral history interview has inspired me to talk more with my other tradition-bearing relatives. What cool stories can I hear from them? What can I learn about my German heritage? For my next oral history interview, in which I plan to learn about my German roots, I hope to set more time aside for conversation. I hope to plan less and let further inquiries come from the tradition-bearer’s responses, not from my previously planned questions.

One day, when I step into my Grandma Lois’ shoes and become one of my family’s tradition-bearers, I can see myself telling stories about my religious background as a Catholic. My life in reference to my religion has been one of my biggest journeys thus far.

I have learned quite a bit about my family’s history and traditions through this project. I feel it is my responsibility to continue passing the history and traditions of my family down as I get older.

This is my family’s photo corner at my parent’s house in Duluth, Georgia. The left wall represents my father’s side of the family, and the right wall represents my mother’s. The pictures progress in time from top to bottom.

Below is the oral history interview I conducted with Grandma Lois.

The Interview

Brooke: When and where were you born?

Grandma: I was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 16th, 1945.

Brooke: Where were your parents born?

Grandma: My mother and father were both born in Chicago, Illinois, too!

Brooke: How many people were in your household growing up?

Grandma: Six.

Brooke: Two brothers, two sisters, and your mom, right?

Grandma: Right! My parents separated when I was two years-old.

Brooke: Well, that leads me to my next question! What was your family like growing up?

Grandma: Oh golly, where do I start? Well, we were very, very poor. In fact, when I was born, my parents were on welfare. My parents separated when I was very little, so my mother had to get a job. Well, before that, when my parents were still married, my father had a great job that he lost because he was an alcoholic. He lost his job because my father didn’t show up for his job one day, and when his employer called my mother, she actually told him that he was a drunk and had spent the night in jail! That’s true but can you believe my mother? They separated when I was 2. My mother got a job as a school teacher to support us. She was the smartest woman I ever knew.

Brooke: Oh I remember Great Grandma Petrides being so smart. She taught me to read even though I hated learning then. Do you remember her giving me a Rice-Krispie treat every time I went over to your house for a reading lesson? She had to bribe me to learn!

Grandma: Yes, I remember. You were not the best student! I also want to make sure you know that, even though we were poor, I still had a happy childhood! Being poor didn’t really matter. I am sure it mattered to my mother and my older siblings, but as the youngest, I was just happy with how things were. I didn’t really know anything different. I was born during the war, so, in fact, everyone was poor. It was normal.

Brooke: That’s hard to imagine. I didn’t know your family was so poor when you were a little girl, Grandma. So, my next question is what part of your heritage are you aware of?

Grandma: I know I am Irish and German. I’ve known that ever since I can remember.

Brooke: How has being Irish and German impacted your life?

Grandma: Well, I know my family has always been more proud of our Irishness because our Irish grandmother was our absolute favorite. Your great-grandmother, my mother, was always so ashamed of being German…maybe because of the war?

Brooke: That’s funny because Mom told me that Great Grandma would deny being German. I guess she really was ashamed of her German heritage. I wish she was still alive so I could ask her why, but then again, if she were still alive, I would probably be afraid to ask her based on what you and Mom have said. I guess it’s fortunate that I am focusing on my Irish heritage for this project. So, in reference to Irish history, what do you know about the Great Famine?

Grandma: Not much, actually… I am pretty sure the Irish came to America because of the Great Famine…although my great, great, too many greats grandmother moved with her family to Guelph, Canada because of the Great Famine.

Brooke: Guelph, Canada? Ancestry.com didn’t tell me what city my great-great-great-great grandmother moved to with her family during the Great Famine. The site just told me they moved to Canada. That’s very cool that you know that. How did you find that out?

Grandma: Your Great Uncle Tom did research into our ancestry a while back, and he told me that!

Brooke: Wow… very cool! I am going to add that to the family tree on the website. My next question is have you ever been to Ireland or Germany?

Grandma: No, but I would love to go! Ireland because I am Irish and Germany because I just know it’s beautiful!

Brooke: If you ever go, you know where I am! Can you describe the first time you ate beef stew?

Grandma: Oh, I absolutely remember the first time I ate beef stew. When I was a little girl, we didn’t eat meat on Fridays because we are Catholic, as you know. One Friday night, stew was cooking on the stove. My father couldn’t wait for midnight when he was allowed to eat meat, so he opened the pressure cooker on the stove and it exploded! Stew landed on top of my head, and I remember it burning terribly as my mother tried to get it off me. Dad couldn’t wait just a little longer for Saturday. So, yes, that is the earliest time I remember having beef stew. I was just a little girl.

Brooke: Wow, your dad must have been hungry. I know that we don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, but your family didn’t eat meat every Friday?

Grandma: Right. It was my mother’s choice to not eat meat on Fridays. She thought it was silly to only follow that tradition for a handful of weeks out of the year.

Brooke: Hmm, interesting. I am glad we only refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. It would be hard to do that every Friday regardless of the time of the year. Do you remember who taught you how to prepare beef stew?

Grandma: My German mother did! But, she was married to an Irish man.

Brooke: Do you know any history about the dish?

Grandma: I believe the original recipe has lamb, right?

Brooke: Yes ma’am! The original recipe is actually very different from our family’s recipe. When the Irish came to North America after the Great Famine, the dish changed a lot. Cows were more readily available than lambs were, and potato and carrot peelings were substituted with actual whole potatoes and carrots. So, the dish actually got better.

Grandma: Now you are teaching me!

Brooke: I have learned a lot of cool facts from this project!

Grandma: I can tell! Oh! I remember another thing about the history of the dish. I told you a story earlier about how I tried to make it more traditional by adding stout, but I didn’t like it at all! Adding Guinness to stew is an Irish thing, I know for sure. When we tried it, goodness it made our house smell for a week. It was terrible. I know you want to try it for your project but I honestly suggest finding a picture of a bottle online and putting it in the picture of you making beef stew, Brooke. You know how to do all of that adding to pictures things I know. Just make it look like you used stout. You won’t regret it.

Brooke: It was that bad? Wow… would you make any changes to the recipe? Our family’s recipe, I mean?

Grandma: Yes, it was really terrible. Your grandpa hated it more than me. And, I really wouldn’t make any changes. It’s my favorite meal. I know my way of making is the nontraditional American way of making it, but it really is my favorite meal!

Brooke: Well, I am glad you like our family’s recipe so much and I am so happy that we got to make it together. Thank you for letting me interview you, Grandma!

Grandma Lois at ten years-old following her First Holy Communion. She has been a beautiful woman her whole life!

Following this oral history interview, my grandmother and I made beef stew with Guinness. I must say: I definitely take after her because I could not even stand the smell of the meal. Yes, I did try it, but I can comfortably say that is the last time I will have beef stew with Guinness.

My taste buds are not that Irish after all!