Family history ; visits in the past | Featured Columnists

At our family reunion in the Adirondacks, upstate New York last month, one of my brothers brought a folder of papers which turned into a highlight of our week together. . The papers included my mother’s diary for 1934 and 1935, the engagement period with the man she married, my father. The file also contained the long letters she had written to my father during this period. When my brothers weren’t on the golf course, we would sit in the living room reading excerpts from the letters to each other, thinking about my mother’s comments. She seemed to love dancing to big band music almost as much as she loved highballs, someone remarked. Then there were those two other guys she talked about in the letters. Were they serious rivals for my mother’s attention?

At the end of the week, we agreed how much fun it was to look so closely at this part of the past, a part that held special significance for her children many years later. My youngest brother then filed more papers – photos and clippings about our uncles, aunts and grandparents – before announcing that he was compiling an extensive family history. It must be reserved for the younger generation, he said. None of us disagreed. We had just spent a pleasant week discovering our past. Why refuse this treatment to those who will come after us?

A week earlier, while visiting Southern California, I had spent a day with someone who had actually started writing family history. His parents, Leo and Angie Delarosa, arrived in Guam shortly after the war and became legends in the region. Leo Delarosa was one of the pioneers of the old administration of the Trust Territory. During his long years in the area, he had lived almost everywhere and the couple had touched the lives of just about everyone they met. In the eyes of all who knew them, Leo and Angie were the archetypal godparents. With their fascinating experiences in the Philippines during the war, why wouldn’t their daughter want to save it all for posterity?

These recent encounters have brought to mind others who wanted to create their own family history. A Palauan woman now residing in Guam who wanted to recapture her own family’s past. A former Peace Corps volunteer who served on an atoll in Chuuk and returned with his family years later to live among the same people. A few people here in Guam who had been captivated by their family’s experiences over the years.

Many people want to cling to what is precious to them. This is quite understandable. But how do you preserve their family’s past? Can all of these family stories be published as books, even with the boom in self-publishing these days? Is there enough space on the library shelves, or even in the cloud, to hold that many family stories?

I have to admit that I used to be a bit skeptical of such family histories, perhaps because I always thought we should prioritize broader accounts of the past – something like conventional histories that we all learned to read during our school days. Certainly, we need books that offer a wide range of past times.

But family history is also important. These days, when families don’t get together as often as they once did, how could we share family stories with each other? These old family celebrations where stories were told around the table are much less numerous today. The evening hours when the elders of the house entertained their children with stories of the good old days are now taken up with television, video games or texting on cell phones. It’s hardly a revelation when you hear how individualized our society has become these days. It’s as if everyone had decided to go their own way.

If family stories help us regain a sense of unity and strengthen our bonds with one another, then they serve an important purpose. Whether self-published, distributed digitally, or even written on palimpsest, they can be a blessing to those who come after us. These family stories can amuse and fascinate them, just as my mother’s letters did for her children ninety years after they were written.

Father Fran Hezel is a former director of the Micronesian Seminar pastoral-research institute. After serving as Jesuit Mission Superior in the Micronesian Islands for six years, he continued to lead the Micronesian Seminary until 2010.

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