Preserving History

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. 

Storytelling around the campfire
Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash

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 writer@kathrynannecasey.com and I’ll make sure it finds its way home. 

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

What we can learn from motherhood

The potential of motherhood is a remarkable thing.

We can learn a great deal from it, whether we are mothers or not.

A woman carries a child inside her, slowly over time becoming more and more aware of its movements, its hiccups, its wakefulness, its tendency to kick in the middle of the night. Her days are divided between the work in front of her and the work happening inside her, but outside her control. Perhaps she worries. Perhaps she glows with joy. Perhaps she suffers from physical ailments, uncertainty, or instability.

expectant mother awaiting motherhood

Yet still, she goes on. The child grows and grows until the time comes to meet face to face.

Mothers whose children have died through miscarriage or stillbirth or who have received a prenatal diagnosis, integrate within them the understanding that there is so little they have power over in the process. They may try, but to have any peace, they must accept this unique circumstance.

All this awareness primes the mother’s brain to meet her child

to be deeply aware of his presence, to read the little signs in his face and behavior that he is hungry, tired, or uncomfortable. As he grows, her awareness grows as well. She quickly takes in the dangers of a room, the number of objects within reach, the hazards and the thrills that await the adventuresome little gentleman. As the child grows older, he begins to go beyond her reach and she learns to let go even more than she did during pregnancy, even more than she did when she knew now was the time for him to learn to climb that tree. But still, she keeps a steady awareness of him in her heart.

That is the natural and ideal path of motherhood, supported by a loving and attentive spouse who shares in the trials and joys of parenting. This awareness of the other person, able to take in the immediate information and the whole picture, able to see things concretely and yet take in the broad ramifications of the child’s personhood, is what Pope John Paul II referred to as the feminine genius. The feminine genius refers to this capacity in the woman. It starts as only a capacity. It must be developed to flourish. We see it naturally through the lived experience of motherhood, but many women will attest to its development in other ways. Many men may as well.

Although we see its potential, this path must be chosen and chosen all the more intentionally in today’s world where distractions abound. Internet, email, text messages, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, and so on, continue to ping, designed to draw and keep our intention. For those with freelance work, the changing algorithm demands even more attention if we are to “get ahead” or even “stay on track.” For students, the work of education is wrapped up in the same devices designed to entertain us.

Nowadays, we have to choose to stop, look, listen and focus.

scene from a library

Consider Betty Smith’s description in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind.”

In Tales of San Francisco, Samuel Dickson tells the story of poet Ina Coolbrith, “One day, a small boy came to the librarian, Miss Coolbrith. He was twelve years old, a dirty, small boy. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm; he was poor, shabby, uncared-for. And he said, please, Miss, could he have something to read? Something to read! That small boy was Jack London, and Ina Coolbrith gave him something to read. For months and years, she gave him something to read; she guided him, inspired him, and won his undying adoration.”

Whether the children in our house, the neighbor in need, the unvisited person at a retirement home, or the ones we encounter in our work, we can make a choice. When we choose to attend to the person, to be aware, to take into our minds and hearts the condition of the whole person before us and not merely the transactions, we have a great potential for good, for a life-giving, soul-filling good.

And that we can learn from motherhood.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.