October is fast approaching and I’ve been thinking about how I want to honor Family History Month.
Maybe I haven’t made any specific plans because the idea of researching family history is just too large a task, too daunting a project. Instead I’ll revel in the times that bringing our family history to life just happened serendipitously.
A school assignment years ago to create a family tree (now more accommodatingly called a family constellation to allow for the many variations in family configurations) brought up questions that sent us hastening to our best resource: the grandparents. With their help the tree started to take shape. Layers of time floated around us as we moved back and forth among the generations filling in names and dates and adding photos.
We learned some serious facts of life: that more people died at a younger age years ago. And we learned fun things: that our ancestors had some “interesting” names we were glad had not been passed along to us.
Sorting through papers while emptying my family home, I found my grandmother’s early writing where she admitted to feeling a bit like a country mouse when she was being courted by her soon-to-be husband. Really? We thought of her as an urban, sophisticated person who had married the son of recent immigrants. She went from her rural beginnings (New York City’s boroughs did have farms at the beginning of the last century) to become, due to early widowhood, a polished working woman supporting two children.
We learned that birth certificates detailing dates and places tell one story but that diary entries can tell quite another.
Another school assignment was to interview someone who had come to America from another country. Choosing to talk with an aunt who had emigrated from Romania at the age of 12, one of my kids eagerly formulated questions important to a child: What toys did you play with? Where did you go to school? What chores did you do?
We learned that in a hardscrabble life in Eastern Europe at that time a doll was two sticks tied together and covered with a ragged piece of cloth. We learned that immigrants can be the most determined, hardest-working group in America. We also came to see what gratitude for a wonderful life in America looks like.
A high school assignment to interview someone who had lived through most of the twentieth century led one of my kids to discover that my father as a very young child had gone to Prospect Park with his father to welcome Charles Lindbergh back to the United States after his solo flight to Paris. We found out that my father can remember the very spot he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor was bombed. We now know he was in the stands in Ebbets Field the first time Jackie Robinson played there.
We learned that history is not just events and dates but that real people are participants in and witnesses to it. We will never again see Lindbergh’s flight, Pearl Harbor, or the Brooklyn Dodgers in quite the same way.
When I discovered that my father’s father was born just blocks (or one neighborhood) away from where we live, we took my father to the very street corner to photograph him in front of the building. What had been a part of the city that was home to recent immigrants at the turn of the last century is now a gentrified neighborhood sought out by young sophisticates, so much so that my daughter said she couldn’t believe her great grandfather was born in such a nice building (well, an older building that had been nicely renovated).
We saw the sociology of urban planning come alive: We learned that neighborhoods change as individual families as well as groups of people move on, leaving the neighborhood to newcomers who create a new community.
What opportunities we were handed to investigate our family history – in bits and pieces, in ways that fit naturally into our lives – and to share the stories, some that were new to us and some that we had heard many times before.
We learned not to underestimate the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. That stories are more important than any object left to us. They are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.
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