In the bygone days of my youth, I listened to my father’s stories of his childhood and how his parents worked to provide for him and his siblings. I took in the expressions he passed on to me from his mother, whose family came from Minnesota. There was pride in this history, how long some of our ancestors lived here and pride in those more recently come and the stories they brought with them.
There were not many stories though.
Our family was not given to talking much generally. The next stories came from books. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a newly-made mother seeks advice from her mother.
“You must tell the child the legends I told you-as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those, not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people-fairies, elves, dwarfs and such. You must tell of the great ghosts that haunted your father’s people and of the evil eye which a hex put on your aunt. You must teach the child of the signs that come to the women of our family when there is trouble and death to be. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus, His Only Son.”
“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”
“Because, explained Mary Rommely simply, the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”
And like this practice in imagination, when we know the stories of on our ancestors and pass them on to our children and future generations, this oral history stays with us as something we remember from time to time, something we fall back on, something that can powerfully shape how we respond to the trials and tribulations that come our way.
The oral history could be the stories of the who lived the faith we now practice, the religious or secular heroes. It must be approached delicately in some cases. Most heroes were not saints, and the wrong they may have done must be approached appropriately at the right age. Some mistakes ought to reshape the standing of historical figures, but not all mistakes have or should have that power.
We can tell the stories. We tell them again and again, adding their color as the years go by, like moving from board books to picture books to chapter books, all telling the tales of the same person.
Do we have that option for our family stories?
As a child, I attended St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hughson. In looking for information regarding its founding 100 years ago in Hughson, I learned Portuguese and Italian immigrants built the parish, naming it under the patronage of St. Anthony, a Portuguese saint beloved in Italy.
But the parish does not have a record of the personal stories, and neither does the Hughson Historical Society. We do not have that oral history.
In college, we partnered with a non-profit organization that coordinated the meeting of the students with volunteers who founded the organization. We interviewed them, recorded the interviews, transcribed the interviews, and turned them in, to be preserved by the organization.
The Hughson Historical Society meet monthly to share their remanences.
I have the honor of sharing some of these stories with the community. The more I attend, the more this practice makes sense. It is not for the gratification of the storyteller, but to allow the heroes to live onward in their legacy. When it is personal, the everyday events do not seem nearly so small to those who love them.
While the historical record might begin with the plain dates of when things happened and where, but it’s the stories, the personal testimonies, that give it life and light.
Do you have a story passed down to you of the founding of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hughson 100 years ago or of the new church building 55 years ago?
Email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll make sure it finds its way home.