I have an assignment for you. I can't help it; it's the teacher in me. It's Family History Month, and 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 audio or video tape. Have them hear about Grandpa's trip across the country during the Depression and how to make Grandma's 14 vegetable soup. And don't forget the secret of that lemon pie.
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 deep seriousness they took their responsibility, as a student from Malaysia put it, "to bring fragrance to the family name." When I first make this assignment in my English classes for American students, it's usually greeted with groans and mutterings -- as in: do I really have to talk to Aunt Sadie and Uncle Miles?
A month or two later, they come in filled with excitement -- and revelations. 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 found out that she and all the women in her family had been "born with a veil" and had powers to see the future. The last time that my students did family folklore books, they all brought in a dish of a cherished family recipe -- and we filled a nondescript classroom with Babbette's Feast. And once again my students told me something about this assignment that they never say about any others: no matter what you do with the course, don't change this, or I would never have found out . . . who I really am.
Copyright 2006© John Cech
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Monday, 02-Oct-2006 12:38:01 EDT