Last night I met someone who told me about a family history book given to her by a relative. “It was more like genealogy,” she said, “and I wish there had been some stories in it.”
“I know what you mean. Stories can make ancestors come alive for us—show us that they too had trials and challenges.”
“All I have are birth and death dates to go with names. I want to know what happened in-between,” she said.
I pondered her words and thought of the stories my siblings and I added to our family history. Below are a few paragraphs that illustrate changes in race and gender.
“Although Brown vs. Board of Education declared separate public schools for black and white children in 1954 to be unconstitutional, life didn’t change in our separate and unequal little Southern town for another decade. My siblings and I went to school at Camden Elementary with all the other white kids in town and walked to and from school each day.
“Although the African American population in Camden was fairly large, I rarely saw a black person—not in school or church or at the movies. Not in stores or restaurants. Nowhere. Even when DuPont came to the area and changed our little community, there was a limit to what they could do, and there were still restrictions on letting the races work in the same room—at least at first.
“Each year, classes presented “chapel programs,” and other classes filed into the auditorium to watch. My most memorable was about Hiawatha, perhaps because Mama made my dress and took several pictures. She even made the headband and found a feather for it and some moccasins for my feet. In retrospect, I wonder how much she knew about the depopulation and displacement of Native Americans at that time. By midlife, she was heartbroken after learning more of their horrific mistreatment in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a book that profoundly influenced her thinking.
“Worth mentioning is how we learned to read—using Dick and Jane primers. Dick and Jane and their sister Sally belonged to a perfect nuclear family, complete with a cat and dog, Puff and Spot. Sally even had curly blondish hair like Ann. The father went to work each day, and the mother stayed home baking cookies and providing a clean, warm environment for her family.
“In the books, Dick was told such things as “Run, Dick, run,” and Jane was instructed to, “Look, Jane, look.” I loved those little books. Although I didn’t see it at the time, Dick and Jane exemplified what social scientists would describe as giving boys wings and girls roots. Dick and Jane were a lot like us. Jane and Sally even wore dresses to play in just like my sister and I did. On freezing days, we were allowed to wear pants beneath our dresses.
“It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and raising children of my own when I learned that Dick and Jane primers were being taken out of the schools since they didn’t accurately depict our changing social mores. In fact, they had been declared as both sexist and racist. At first, I thought this was erroneous, but then I began reading some of my daughters’ books, and sure enough, the times they were a’ changing.
“One morning on the way to school, Carrie was reading aloud and stumbled over the pronunciation of a Spanish surname—Dr. Gonzalez. And get this—the doctor was a woman! Before I knew it, Judy Blume was on the scene tackling such issues as divorce, bullying, and racism in her children’s books.
“I may be overstating this, but I feel pretty safe in saying that through the early 60’s, America and its institutions such as education kept to safe subjects. I didn’t know any friends whose parents were divorced, and few mothers worked outside of the home. Those who did were primarily in five fields: teaching, nursing, childcare, secretarial, and waitressing. Some worked in mills and family businesses.”
I don’t know whether my children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews find the stories and times of their forebears as fascinating as I do, but I think including them in Our Lighted Seasons makes the history a lot less dry.