Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by John Fraim
John Fraim celebrates the collecting and writing of personal histories in this brief essay.
Our history is a haphazard affair. There was once a time in my life, somewhere around college, when I felt that the important things in the world were always recorded and saved for examination by later generations like grand, preserved butterfly collections. Like the movie star photos plastered on the walls of some famous old Hollywood restaurant like the Brown Derby. Maybe I could chalk it up to my years as a history major at UCLA in the late 60s.
But eventually I came to realize that the spotlight or camera flash of history was a fickle light and one could not always trust what it illuminated.
I came to see history more as a personal affair. Something not just for the people in the UCLA History Department to be concerned about preserving. But something each one of us have to preserve. In a sense, each of us need to become our own History Departments.
The more I thought about personal history rather than non-personal history constantly manufactured for us by others, the more it seemed to simply center around a love still centered somewhere in the past. More in the past than a love that turns away from the past and looks into the present or future.
This personal history seemed to be some great invisible creation of all those in the world who could still remember their love for something in the past.
This memory of past love comes in so many stupid and tiny little ways. It is hardly ever recorded on the six o’clock news or in Time Magazine or the pages of The New York Times.
It is composed of those who try to remember the past life of a departed loved-one and maybe write a biography about their life. Like I attempted in a biography about my father called A Distant Hero.
The words of Virginia Woolf were inspirational to me before I set out on the project a few months after his death. I went down to my mother’s house in Palm Desert, California and was faced with going through the archaeology of my father’s life buried in old olive army footlockers and brittle, crackling albums of fading black and white photographs. As I sorted through all the objects of his life her words came to mind:
How can one make a life out of six cardboard boxes full of tailors’ bills, love letters and old picture postcards?
It was difficult but a scattered group of original evidence of my father’s life, spread before me during the next few months when I wrote the biography, seemed so much more important and valuable than the things said about him from others. These were the souvenirs of life that he had collected himself. His badges from his years in the military. The photo albums from his years up in Churchill on the Hudson Bay in Canada. The little model railroad engines and railroad cars he had collected. The objects from those early years of his marriage when he was living in Laguna Beach.
Just a few days ago, a long lost cousin wrote about a family reunion more than a year away back in Ohio. She is now a doctor in a little town in Illinois and raises Arabian Horses. And she has been a type of detective for a part of my family that the so-called spotlight of a family history had left pretty dark.
She included a poem praising those that keep personal history in their life. It is called "Beatitudes of a Family Genealogist" and the author is unknown. It was kind of long for the short electrified language of the Net but it was hard to forget them:
Blessed are the great-grandmothers who hoarded newspaper clippings and old letters, for they tell the story of their time.
Blessed are all grandfathers who filed every legal document, for they provided the proof.
Blessed are the grandmothers who preserved family Bibles and diaries, for they preserved our heritage.
Blessed are fathers who elect officials that answer letters of inquiry; for some, they are the only link to the past.
Blessed are mothers who relate family traditions and legends to the family, for one of her children will surely remember.
Blessed are the relatives who fill in family sheets with extra data; to them we owe the family history.
Blessed is any family whose members strive for the preservation of records, for theirs is a labor of love.
Blessed are the children who will never say, "Grandma, you have told that old story twice today.
Blessed are the computer operators, for surely they will eventually come up with a match.
What more could one say in the area of definition about this subject of personal history? These seemed marching words. Marching orders. Maybe a poem. But more likely, a battle hymn. Perhaps a new battle hymn for the republic? A hymn of memory rather than desire.
Today I went down to Depot Park in Sonoma to help with my son Matt’s second grade field trip. The park is built around the old depot station for Sonoma that took people from San Francisco to Sonoma and Glenn Ellen. Jack London most likely traveled through the Sonoma station on his way to Glenn Ellen.
After lunch, Matt’s class is busy engaged in a game of Cops and Robbers in the park supervised by a number of parents and I wander over to the depot and into the depot museum which is home of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society. A nice older lady sits at a little desk next to the door and welcomes me and tells me she is a docent of the historical society. Her name is Illene. She gives me a brochure and what looks like a newsletter. I sign my name into a register. I tell her of my interest in trains. (Acquired of course from my father).
For the next half an hour I slowly move along the walls of the museum reading about the famous people who created Sonoma. There is no one else is in the museum except this Spanish couple who seem deaf and speaking in a jumbled Spanish. One of the other museum docents (I learn is Mary Kay) is giving them a tour and trying to speak Spanish to them but it isn’t getting through.
I end up talking to the two women for maybe half an hour and then buy a small little book published by the historical society called Pioneer Sonoma by Robert D. Parmelee. It was written in 1972 and looks like it was published by one of those vanity presses.
Before I leave, Mary Kay asks me if I was interested in perhaps being on the board of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society. She marked a date on the newsletter I had and told me to come down to the depot to hear one of their historical society authors speak about the early years of Sonoma.
I told Mary Kay and Illene I would come and left to check on Matt in the park.
The kids were through with their game of Cops and Robbers and I got out the pack of Oreo’s and Tootsie-Roll Pops I had got them and distributed it all. There were plenty of parents to help with the walk back to school so I said goodbye to everyone and headed back home up Highway 12 through the Valley of the Moon.
That night after the family dinner, I watched the six o’clock news for a few minutes and then turned the television off and went in to check out the Drudge Report on the Internet. The same cast of celebrities were coming and going from the spotlight of public culture. One could see camera flashes everywhere.
I was tired and turned the computer off.
Before I went to bed I sorted through the stuff of my pockets for the day and found the newsletter with the date on it. I unfolded the newsletter and read the whole thing. Most of it involved the Log of the S.S. Sonoma written by Robert Parmelee. There were excerpts from 1901 and 1921 from the ships log record.
When I finished I got a tack from my desk and put the newsletter up on my bulletin board. And then I circled the date of the meeting of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society on my calendar.
I guess personal historians are recruited in all types of ways.