This past weekend, my family accompanied a nice chicken dinner with stories about school in the 1940s. I watched my daughter, the only child at the table, and wondered what kind of impression the tales her granddad told over the meal made on her.
I remember when I was a girl and stories were exchanged around my parents' table.I would hang on every word my elders shared about their own childhoods. I don't recall my siblings in the room or any other children. (Were they there and I just don't remember)? I do remember that I was enthralled and that at least sometimes I was the only person under thirty remaining at the table beyond dessert. Looking back, I realize how these experiences prepared me for my future career. I enjoyed sitting at the table listening to the grownups talk about the past as much as I enjoyed playing with the other children. Sometimes I enjoyed it more.
I loved the stories that my Dad and Uncle Bob told of stickball, punchball, and baseball played on the streets of New York City.
I loved hearing how my paternal great Uncle Sid and Uncle Joe landed as American soldiers in Normandy during World War II.
I loved hearing about how my neighbor, "Uncle" Al, had climbed some of the highest skyscrapers in New York City to install windows on our now iconic buildings.
Looking back, it was primarily men's stories that were told over large meals that involved multiple families - weekend barbecues, holidays celebrations, birthdays, and neighborhood parties, A focus on the men seems unusual now, but it was a part of the times and perhaps the location. It was an era when most women in my Long Island neighborhood were housewives and their days were wrapped around their neighbors. When the men left the table, the women would sip teas and coffees and talk about our community and their children.
More personal stories from Mom and Aunt Rochelle and the other women in my life were saved for quiet moments when it was just one of them and me. Girl talk. They were usually life lessons passed down to the next generation, not tales of bravado. They were stories about family connections and I learned how where they came from played a vital part in who I was.
Listening to the storytellers in my life, I grew to appreciate the past, their experiences, their personalities and our community. Through their stories and personalized lessons. I better understood the world and my place in it.
Does my daughter get it? Does she listen and internalize the stories?
I realize that I share my own words of wisdom with my daughter when we are alone. (Is this quiet together time part of the nature of our gender or the reality of circumstance?) I tell my daughter about my childhood when we are driving together. I tell her about my family background when I get ready in the morning. I try hard to file away in my brain the stories that she tells me when we go for walks together - her favorite anime, teachers, friends -- in part so I can repeat it back to her and reminisce about her childhood when she is older. If she doesn't fully appreciate the grownup stories now, I know she will when she is older. I will help her connect generations in her mind by referring back to our times together.
And then there is a larger group of youngsters to consider...This past Monday, I introduced my students to the field of oral history and techniques of interviewing as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our school community. When I make archives presentations to an adult audience, I often am questioned about how to make kids interested in their own history. Do kids today value the stories we tell them or do we just seem old-fashioned? I know that my students are excited to have a formal event that encourages them to ask questions of their elders. Are they proud of their community and do they see this opportunity as a way to honor it? Are they interested in seeing connections between themselves and past generations? I'm not sure. I am not sure that they know themselves, but giving young adults an opportunity to try to make a deep connections to the past is important. Creating an event, series of events, or a platform (like a dinner table conversation) where they can explore their thoughts and feelings about their own history is important. Kids will not make the connections between history and themselves without the approachable stories as a foundation.
We all have different reasons for studying the past. Does it matter why we seek more information about those who came before us? Do we need to understand why we want to know to fully appreciate what we learn? Perhaps listening to the storytellers may not make an immediate impression. Perhaps we do not immediately have a full grasp of the stories' meanings in our lives. But we must keep the storytellers telling to get the listeners questioning.