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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Preserving the History

I guess I can't say enough how much I enjoy sidebar surfing. VerOn!c@ was kind enough to respond to my tag in the previous post. After reading through her chosen posts I decided to visit one new person (just one, I have a lot to do today) from her sidebar. Since I'm developing a new appreciation for the French designs I decided to visit Lili in France. Her most recent post is about what happens to the pieces that we so lovingly gift upon our friends and family, or to those that we leave stored in boxes. As I started to comment I realized I had a rant coming on, so rather than bore her with it decided to move it here (and bore you with it!)

I'm a historian. I was a historian first, then I went and got a degree in it, then I started teaching it. I only say that to give first the idea that I love people's stories. I also love the stories of things and value the stories of the past. Which was why I almost burst into tears one day in an antique store when I saw someone's antique photo album full of family portraits broken down and for sale at $1 per page. THIS WAS SOMEONE'S FAMILY, for sale cheap to someone who wanted to do who-knows-what with antique portraits (decoupage them onto a papier mache box?)

Not that I can blame the person who wanted to use the photos to create. But somewhere there is someone who cares about those people, who would LOVE to have those pictures. Why don't they? Because the person who ended up with the album had NO IDEA who those people are; not only was there no history included with the pictures, they weren't even labeled with the names of the people.

I am the keeper of the family photographs on two sides, mine and my husband's. As people in the families heard that I was interested in the hiSTORY of their families they started pulling out photos. Some they gave to me. Some they let me borrow to copy. And one of my continuing projects is researching the history of these families and connecting the history to the photographs. It's been very challenging but incredibly rewarding.

However, as related to stitchery, I had not taken it to this level of thought until I read Lili's post. Is it enough to sign our work? Sign and date it? Hmmm...

Every year I make my students compile a project called "My History is America's History." Partly it's to make the point (again and again and again...) that today's America is a country that would not exist without immigration and that every person living here is part of that history. But more importantly, it's to get them to get the stories of their three "oldest living relatives" before they lose them. They also do some activities about themselves (autobiographical incident, favorite things and so on). I even make them document a favorite family recipe!

I make them do this because, in 1982 when I first started delving into family history, my husband's aunt gave me a copy of a document that she had received from a cousin (who I had never and have still never met.) It was written by a man named Robert L. Bamford (b. 1826) and was dated 1912. Mr Bamford had written down everything he could ever remember hearing about his family's history. For him the story only went back three generations. He even says that maybe nobody will ever care, but maybe someday someone will so here it is.
Robert L. Bamford was the brother of my husband's great-great-grandmother. He was certainly not thinking about ME, but I was THRILLED to get this story which told of his ancestors migrating into the early American west (even crossing the river on a "ferry" raft which is where his ancestor met her husband.)

Thanks to Lili, I now realize that I have many things, but especially the lovingly stitched "heirlooms" that have been given to me, that need more documentation. I won't bore us all (especially me) with the rest of the thought process but will jump to what I'm going to do.

I'm going to buy some really lovely envelopes. You know the kind where the flap has a lovely design on it? Then I'm going to write a short (short, Debi, SHORT) autobiography. I will print out a ONE PAGE family tree (ONE PAGE, Debi). Maybe I'll do all of this on something pretty. Finally, I will document the piece. Who designed the chart? What about it appealed to me? If it was a gift (especially for family), who was it for and why are they so important to me that I would make this for them. For gifts I might even make this a "Dear So-and-So" letter, very personal. I will include a photo of myself and a photo of the piece (maybe a photo of me holding the piece). I will put all of this into the pretty envelope, then, I will include this document with the piece. If it's framed, I will glue the piece to the backing board at the back of the piece (just don't use bulky paper, Deb). If it's something made into a quilt or pillow, I'll just include it with the piece.

The point is, somewhere down the line, someone will find this piece. If I've done it right it should last several generations. Maybe my great-grandchildren will find it in a box and say, "Why did Dad keep this ugly thing?" But maybe, when they find the envelope and make the connection, they will decide to keep it after all rather than give it to the thrift shop.

And for Lili, if you decided to pop over and read this. One day I had a garage sale. As a shopper was going through the stuff she found a piece of crewel. On the back was a "To From" statement and the shopper brought it to me and asked, "Did you really want to sell this?" It was a piece my mother-in-law had made for me. I had met my in-laws in the fall of 1971. I married my husband in June of 1972. Fourteen months later my MIL had a massive stroke and his father a nervous breakdown; He lived for four more years, she for thirteen. My husband did everything to take care of them from finding (and moving them into) multiple homes, fighting with insurance companies and, for the eight years his mother lived in our town, visiting her every Saturday and being at her beck and call. All for a woman who was a hypocrite, who neglected her sons when they were growing up and allowed her husband to emotionally abuse them, all while preserving her standing as the daughter of an evangelist and the wife of an Air Force chaplain. My husband hated his father and despised his mother, but he took care of them anyway. The rest of DH's story is not mine to tell here, but I will say that by the time she died and we were selling off what we didn't want of their belongings, I had no love left for the woman and did not want that reminder in my home. Would my children have appreciated having that connection to the grandmother they really never knew and don't remember? I don't know, but at that point it wasn't worth thinking about.

And now I must get back to work. Speaking of things of the past, I'm going through stuff from the attic. Some I don't even remember owning (easy to pitch out). Some I'm thrilled to find. For example, I was beginning to question my memory. I THINK I was in a junior high drill team when I was in the ninth grade, but I can pull up no memory of it. Was I in it or not? Well, one of the things I found was my old uniform from that experience, which brought back a little bit of memory. Whew!


5 comments:

Lili said...

Dear Debi,
Your comment on my post has gone straight to my heart -and I couldn't wait to read your "rant". It was not boring at all, but thought-provoking and constructive too.
I also thank you for your special note about your mil. My DH also has very serious things to reproach to his mother -and my anger to her is rooted in this, just as if I had had to experience these hard times myself. Well, in a sense, considering that what we live does make us what we become, we still pay for her failures as a mother and protector.
Anyway, I won't rant here either... Lol!!!
But I wanted to point this out: when I was a child, my mother used to tell me stories of her family and they went back to WWI. My father didn't and when I ask him, he doesn't know much. My two grandmothers are still alive -though very old and in poor health- but my father's mother won't mention the past while my mother's mother seems to have lived a very different life from the one my own mother describes (am I clear?).
The pics of our families belong to my grandmas. One has got rid of them heaven knows where, and the other ones will probably be scattered as she doesn't want to let us have them and copy them. It's all family "stories", matter of pride and self esteem and then the memories are gone. How can you fight that?
And you know the worst part of it? I have realized two days ago that I just wasn't passing this family history to my children and neither is my mum. Time to make up for it, isn't it?
Oh. That was a rant, wasn't it? Sorry...
I'll be happy to see you back on my blog and you can be sure I'll come back and read yours asap. Now, it's almost 9pm and DH is waiting for me to watch a movie. Probably anticipation. Lol!!! That's a wonderful world!
Take care, Debi- and many thanks.
Lili

vEr0n!c@ said...

Wow, I've never thought of history quite that way before. Your post wasn't boring at all but rather very interesting and thought provoking. :)

Marita said...

I'm so lucky to have had an amazing MIL who I was closer to than my own Mum. She passed away in 2004 after a long fight with breast cancer. One wonderful thing was that oldest niece had done a school project about her Omi (my MIL) and so we had a written history on my MILs life in her own words.

I've been planning to copy those pages and use them in a scrapbook with pictures of my MIL alongside the story.

Marita said...

Oddly enough I came across another blog post today about photo albums -
http://muppinstuff.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/01/a-visit-to-the.html

Samantha said...

Thanks for such an interesting post :-) I've had that thrift store moment myself, so sad to see someone's history torn up and abandoned...