Most people look at the making of history in a short of detached mode. That is, they see historic events, like the 9/11 bombings but do not consider themselves as a part of it. We all saw the towers collapsing, the people jumping to their deaths, the fire and police responders in the middle of everything. Those people, of course, we central to that history as it was made. But they we actually only a small part of a much larger scenario. That historic event in fact went on for days, months, years. We were all witness to it in one way or another and we all made observations about it. It effected our lives, our movements, our perceived safety, and many other parts of our lives. For me personally, I had to attend my daughter’s wedding 10 days after the attack and had to fly through Newark airport to get to San Antonio. My flight from Boston to Newark involved our flying very near to where the twin towers once existed. I saw the smoke rising from that spot and that image is indelibly imprinted on my memory. For a historian, which I have a masters degree in, primary source material is of the first priority in understand historical events completely. My recounting of the 9/11 events, not just my seeing ground zero from my airplane window, but how I, as a Federal Government employee at the time, is exactly what a historian covets in properly capturing historical events.
But what else is there? First of all, history is something that in on-going. It does not start and stop with particular memorable events, but is a continuous series of small events. Most people believe their lives are uneventful and of no particular interest to historians. But nothing could be further from the truth. The fabric of history is intertwined with the lives of every living people.
For example, back in 1989 I decided to take the train cross-country, Boston to San Francisco via Chicago. The Boston to Chicago leg on the Lake Shore Limited started in the late afternoon of one day and finished in Chicago in the early afternoon of the following day. On the morning of that second day, I travel from my compartment to the dining car to have breakfast. I was seated across from an elderly lady and we of course struck up a conversation. I asked her where she came from and what she had done when she was working. I remember her commenting how her life was unremarkable, or so she thought. She told me that she had taught school in a one room school house in southern Ohio. I told her that her experience was special and worthy of being remembered on paper. I told her that the one room school house was a thing of the past and that only those who experienced such things could properly relate to coming generations who would have no concept, no perspective of such a thing. I was sad that I had no way to capture her memory but told her that her memories were valuable and worthy of being written down. I have carried that belief with me since.
My own family has a rich history but most of it is limited to brief snippets which do not do justice to their experiences. To that end, I decided to interview my Aunt Charlotte. Aunt Charlotte was my father’s sister. My father died in 1970 and I was too young prior to that to have asked him much about his prior life. That meant when he died so did every single memory of his. I have at least 1000 questions of him which of course can never been answered. But I decided that I could gain insight by interviewing my aunt who was extremely close to her brother, my father. I had the good sense to take a mini-recorder with me when I interviewed her so I could capture her every word. I then found someone who could transcribe the recording. I have a complete written transcript of that interview which was invaluable for my gaining insight into my paternal family. During that interview an interesting thing happen. She used the word “pung” which has slipped from the modern lexicon. That is because a pung is a sled which was used when she was a child, 1910s and 1920 to transport milk cans from the dairy farms to the creamery. Although it was a part of her memory it of course was not a part of mine, or anyone else of my generation and succeeding generations because paved roads put an end to their use.
My own personal history includes my having worked in a shoe factory, a true sweat shop, when I was 16. I was experience in the end of a particular type of manufacturing in Lawrence Massachusetts. The pictures in my head need to be on paper so when someone wants to learn about the experience of factory workers back then they will have my first person account of it. That experience is called by historians “primary source.” A primary source is a first hand account of any event. But when historians go about reconstructing an event in history rely heavily upon these primary sources. Unfortunately, too my of history is either lacking or absence of primary source material.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus back in 1954 her story was well documented. But there were other people on that bus. Their view of history as it happened at that moment is equally important in drawing up a complete picture. It is unlikely many, if any, of their accounts were documented and that is a loss.
My suggestion to everyone is to document the histories of the elder members of their family first. Have them tell you their experience of what it was like when they were young, from their earliest memory forward. If nothing else, you are guaranteed to hear very interesting facts of their early life. These oral histories, as they are referred to, are invaluable.
An excellent way of preserving your family’s history is through genealogy. There are many sites on the internet today dedicated to genealogical study and research. More and more people share their family’s history on-line which could possibly intersect with your own family.