Menu Close

Family Folklore Books

Author John Cech
Air Date 10/25/1999

Family Folklore Books Transcript

I have an assignment for you. I can’t help it; it’s the teacher in me. It’s Family History Month, and I know it’s a little late in the month, but you can carry this over into November, and December — in fact, you have until next October to do it.

What I’d like you to do is to collect all the lore of your family, about how your ancestors got to this country and where they came from in the old country, about what they did and who they married and how they cured themselves and what they sang when they sang, the jokes they told and still tell, the kinds of pets they raise and cars they buy; the family’s legendary triumphs and disasters, the quirky relatives and the resident ghosts, the heirlooms that were smuggled out of Poland in a loaf of bread, and the trunk that grandfather brought with him that had all his tools in it — the one he built by hand, with those same tools, the tools he said that would help him make his way in this new country. Find out about where they went and who they were. Gather the photographs together, and the blue ribbons, the newspaper clippings, and the pressed flowers. And make a beautiful book out of it.

And do this with your children. Have them help. In fact, have your children record your grandparents and aged uncles and second cousins, on tape of one kind or another. Have them hear about how one of your relatives homesteaded in Montana or ran a dry goods store in New Mexico, about the uncle who worked on the railroad and the other who made pencils out of cedar trees hauled out of the Florida swamps, and the other who looked for Captain Kidd’s treasure up and down the Gulf Coast. Have them hear about how to make grandma’s 14 vegetable soup and what to do about warts and what it means to be born with a veil. When my wife used this assignment in her English as a Second Language courses, her students brought her books that told, in poignant details of the joys and sufferings of families all over the world and what it meant to these students to be representing their families here, and with what a sense of responsibility they took their responsibility to, as several of them put it, “bring fragrance to the family name.”

When I first make this assignment in my American classes, it’s usually greeted at first with groans — do I really have to talk to the oldest members of my family? A month or two later, they come in filled with excitement, with discoveries, with recognitions. One young woman, an orphan, who knew little about her past, discovered who her parents were and that she was distantly related to one of our nation’s presidents. Another discovered that she and all the women in her family had been “born with a veil” and had powers to see the future. But they always discover something interesting and tell me, I wish I knew this when I was young, and they say something about this work that they don’t say about any other assignment: no matter what you do with the course, don’t change this, or I would never have found out who I really am.

Posted in Holidays