You Don’t Say: The real appeal of history is more personal

As long as I can remember I’ve had a love affair with history. However, it seems to me that many people today are not very well informed on this subject, and some are busy rewriting history in support of personal ideologies.

We seem to be morphing into history cynics, not believing anything that doesn’t jibe with our own thinking. When one’s grasp of history is already tenuous at best, I guess it’s pretty easy to pick and choose what you will or will not believe. A good example of this might be Holocaust deniers. There are many other examples – pick one. Unfortunately, public education seems to be doing little to change this trend, while some agenda-driven charter school curriculums seem to reinforce it.

That’s a real shame. Not only because we’re losing our understanding of what has come before, but because, at its most fundamental, history is about us: It’s about me, it’s about you; our connections with each other, the past — and even the future.

Since I know from experience you can’t change other people’s thinking, I don’t even try anymore. For me, the real appeal of history is much more personal: oral family histories.

I’ve always listened to other people’s life stories with fascination. Growing up, it was my parents sharing tales about their childhoods and remembrances of older family members, which really piqued my curiosity, because it made the past immediate to me. Later in life, I attempted to learn more about friends and acquaintances, and sometimes even total strangers, by asking questions about their families, bypassing the usual social amenities and conducting impromptu background checks. Color me curious. This is who I am, I own it.

I was understandably shocked to discover that a lot of folks don’t have the same interest in oral histories that I do. In fact, it seems many people are not terribly invested in their own history; let alone learning about other people’s.

This lack of inquisitiveness about the fundamentals of who we are and how we got here is absolutely astounding to me. Now, if you’re a real self-centered so and so, I can see you might not have the patience to listen to others speak for very long, but how can you not care about your own forebears enough to want to keep their names and memories alive?

It’s said we all die twice: the day we actually shuffle off to Buffalo, and the day our name is spoken for the last time. Isn’t talking about the people whose blood runs through our own veins more respectful and preferable to out of sight, out of mind? I believe it is.

Even if you care nothing at all about genealogy and would never dream of hanging your family coat of arms over the mantle, who you are is, in large measure, determined by the people who raise you. And how they raise you is determined by how they were raised. Since most of us didn’t escape our childhoods without some trauma unwittingly inflicted by our usually well-intentioned loved ones, I think you’d have to agree this is good information to have; especially if, as you grow older, you have any interest at all in working through lingering feelings of anger or resentment over things that affected you greatly, and about which those same loved ones are usually pretty much unaware. Mostly they were just doing their best.

By listening to my father’s stories of his upbringing, I came to realize how alike we were in some ways; how his feelings of abandonment and loss at a young age informed his later thinking and life choices. Yet he elected to be the same kind of disciplinarian and authority figure modeled by his mother and stepfather. I, on the other hand, decided to be a different kind of parent to my daughter: one who, for better or worse, actually talked with instead of at, and made the effort – sometimes heroic – to not use physical intimidation to enforce domestic order.

Despite this, the piece I’m still grappling with is whether it’s easier to live your life strictly in the here and now as opposed to, metaphorically, constantly digging up the dead.

My brother-in-law seems to think so, but for me the jury’s still out. I’d like to think for once I just might be on the right side of things. So I continue to do what I’ve always done: share stories. Hand me that shovel, please.

A couple years ago, during a visit with my daughter and grandsons in Florida, I took them to see the area of Rochelle near Gainesville originally settled by their Zetrouer kinfolk. I told them about their maternal side of the family, how they were “Saltzburgers” from Austria who immigrated to Savannah, Ga., in 1734, and later settled in North Central Florida as some of the original “Crackers.”

We searched in the old Oak Ridge Cemetery for family gravestones. My daughter, while not having been there for many years, was at least aware of some of the history. The boys seemed interested as well. Maybe it was just the idea of a creepy old graveyard with moss covered oak trees and time-blackened headstones, but I was heartened by their interest.

So, imagine my surprise during his visit last year, when I attempted to open a conversation about my own family history with my oldest grandson. I asked him if he had any questions and after a considerable time – I thought he’d fallen asleep – he asked, “Was there anybody important?”

There were any number of sarcastic replies that immediately came to mind as I sat there staring at him in amazement, but I managed to resist the temptation of a verbal dope slap and responded with, “Well, truth be told, all your ancestors were ‘important’, because without them you wouldn’t be here.”

I think he got it, but he didn’t have any other questions so I decided to just let it ride. Maybe I’ll make a family history video he can convert and watch as a hologram in about 20 years when I’m history. I’m sure he’ll have some questions by then. Perhaps, on occasion, he’ll even tell his children a funny story or two about me. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Van Elburg has been a resident of Williamsburg, James City County for more than 30 years. He is semi-retired from a multi-faceted business career and currently teaches classes on blues music for the Christoper Wren Association. He is a musician, writer and on-air personality and programming director for the mobile radio station, TheBluesAlley.com.

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