Thursday, April 7, 2011

Flawed Stories and Diverse Perspectives Part I of II

One of the first memories I have of "history" is sitting with my mother in front of her jewelry box while she told me the stories behind each treasure. There were stories about my grandparents escape from Poland embodied in the my grandmother's amethyst. There was the story about my mother defying her dad to get her ears pierced. There was the story about the first token of love that my dad bought for his bride-to-be. Mom and I have reminisced about this time we shared together. We both treasure those memories and I have begun using my own jewelry box (though not as exciting as mom's) to communicate stories to my youngster. The stories I remember are probably flawed. In fact, when mom told the stories they were probably flawed. The stories are not written anywhere. They are memories. We often take these memories for granted until it is too late to make sure they are accurate. I was surprised when one of my memories about our time together did not match my mother's. I expect inaccuracies in the historical stories I hear. I do not expect inaccuracies in my own remembrances. This has effected me deeply enough to prompt me to write about it.

According to my memory, mom kept her jewelry in a blue Tupperware box. there was a large space below a removable tray that had compartments where she could store things separately. I remember it distinctly. Mom says that she never kept her jewelry in such a container. I can even picture the worn clear plastic top that we could zip around the edges to close the box. I even think that she gave this box to me for me to keep my own jewelry in at some point. We never took a photo of it. We never wrote anything about it during the years it was a central part of our mother-daughter bonding experiences. It's gone. It seems a valuable piece of a long ago story, flawed by my lack of documentation. Perhaps I can meld it into an amusing tale about the playful, yet somewhat serious, argument my mother and I had about this item. ("I distinctly remember it! How can I be losing my mind at age 40!")

As a mom, I am eager to record the most important memories of my family. As an archivist, I know this is a weighty task. Which memories do we value most? What tidbits make up the most important aspects of our lives together? What day-to-day events best reflect who we are, how we relate to one another and how we should be remembered? We all have flawed stories. Everything we know about history we know because someone recorded something. On a grand scale, what tales from the past have not been recorded? What keystones of historical truth never made it to an archival repository and thus never made it to historical record?

I have recently begun an earnest search for my own family genealogy. We have lots of missing information. Some of it I expect I may never find. I wonder the likelihood that records from my grandparents' destroyed Polish city remain. But I have identified the repository most likely to have the information that I need and I will put my family's historical fate into the hands of the archives there as I write overseas searching for an elusive marriage record. They just might hold the evidence that at least pulls some of my flawed stories together. The Archives stands for hope and truth.

Does it matter if our stories are flawed? I think it does. Archives protect the resources that elucidate actuality and thus help us better understand the circumstances surrounding humanity's actions. In so doing, archives help us better understand each other. From this place they allow us to more easily sympathize with others and better communicate with one another based on commonly shared knowledge. Though my argument with my mother over her jewelry box is not the end of the world, I am sure that I am right. She is sure that she is right. We have no proof. We have a small wedge of misunderstanding. Saving the "evidence" of our history is important on a broader scale for the same reason.

What happens when the "evidence" is contradictory? What if I have a picture of mom's jewelry box, but when we look at it, we interpret it differently? (I can picture the discussion: "Well that certainly looks like Tupperware to me!" "Not to me, it looks like velvet and it's red not blue!") Stay tuned next week as I consider diverse perspectives...

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