We Are Made of Stories

As I stood on the porch of the triple decker and listened to their stories, tears came to my eyes.

Jennifer Butler Basile

Jennifer Butler Basile

The girl who quit school after grade eight because she didn’t have the proper clothes for high school. The pride in her voice for her brother with a ‘sharp mind’ who went on to become a judge – because she contributed her wages to his education once hers had stopped. Sugar on bread moistened under the tap as a sweet treat. A wagon cobbled together with whatever scraps a band of neighbors could find.

These are the intonations and inflections of lives lived, identities formed, cultures cemented in history.

The Museum of Work and Culture, in the heart of Woonsocket, RI, tells the story of the many French-Canadian citizens who contributed to the mill industry there. I have not a French-Canadian bone in my body, but their story of immigration and integration is that of my ancestors as well. The hard jobs they took, the harsh living conditions they endured for a better life – if not for them, then their children.

The power of their stories lies in their telling.

The Museum of Work and Culture does a fabulous job of incorporating audio recordings of the oral histories they’ve collected. Quite frequently, there is not a face to match the voice; it is over the images of a film or piped into the replica of a 1920s triple decker front porch. This fact may make them even more affecting. The voices of the past reach into the consciousness, reminding us they are gone, but their mark remains.

They urge me to record my husband’s great-grandmother’s story from Arctic, RI. They remind me to dig deeper into my great-great-grandmother’s story in the mills in Lincoln, her trip from Massachusetts, and Nova Scotia before that.

History is very much alive and well. It is places like The Museum of Work and Culture that remind us of that – and of the fact that we wouldn’t be who we are without it. We cannot let these important stories die. It is the stuff we are made of.

(Im)material Possessions

I sat staring at the porcelain platter in my hands for far too long.  I did not need another platter.  The delicate design painted onto its surface was not my style.  Yet, it was beautiful, the fine crackled lines a roadmap across its surface.  And flipping the plate over, I saw to where the roadmap led.  Ireland.

My great-aunt and uncle traveled to Ireland numerous times.  My great-uncle was consumed by a great need to discover our family’s roots, perhaps because his grandfather, whose name he shared, was the first to make the trek from Ireland to the United States.  Unfortunately, he was not able to glean much information about him or other relatives of the same line.  Thirty years after his death, I’m hitting many of the same walls.  And nearly as consumed by that desire – though not in possession of a purse deep enough to do much about it save research from home.

So when I came across this beautiful platter made in Ireland, perhaps acquired on one their many trips, it was not just a plate, but a tangible link to my heritage.  For not only have I never been to the homeland, but our family has no heirlooms from it.  In mere moments, I formed an odd attachment to this piece of pottery because it’s really all I’ve got.

Then I realize, even that is more than my ancestors had.

Between the potato famine, extreme exportation of their own food stores, and their diaspora, the Irish came to America with virtually nothing.  Reading “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement” by Jane Ziegelman, I learn that extended even to their culinary traditions.

“No other immigrant arrived in the United States with a culinary tradition as skeletal as the Irish.  By the time of the Great Famine, three centuries of the landlord system had stripped it down to a single carbohydrate and a handful of condiments.  Where Germans and Italians and Jews worked hard to perpetuate native food ways, the Irish peasant had little to preserve.  Other immigrant groups used their native foods to establish a collective identity in the New World.  Not so the Irish . . . they turned to religion, music, drama, and dance, among other cultural forms, to assert their identity and connect themselves with the past and each other.” (Ziegelman 59)

After the life they’d lived, they looked to things other than the material to sustain them.

The heirlooms my ancestors have left me are immaterial – in their composition, not their importance.  They are stories, struggles.  I know within my bones the legacy of my people.  I’m calling on the lyrical muse of their lives when I write.  When I laugh in the face of adversity so that I may not cry, I’m utilizing the gifts of their survival.

I still haven’t decided whether I’ll keep the platter.  I’m still haunted by the phantoms of the past, but now I know their spirit lives on.


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