It started out as a story about gardening. A local church was planning a benefit concert to raise money for a move to a new location. The organizers invited me to tell a story to lead off the evening’s entertainment, and needed a title for my part of the program. Though I wasn’t sure yet what story I would tell, I suggested “Putting Down New Roots.” That seemed like an appropriate theme, and I was confident that I had some stories about growing, transplanting, and flourishing that would fit the occasion.
Soon after submitting that title, I logged onto my laptop, went to my database of story fragments and ideas-to-be-worked-out-later, and found my file called “Gardening Bits.” Just as I was about to click it open, I noticed another file, two entries up, called “Ellis Island.” I’m not sure why, but I clicked on that file instead, and found three pages I’d written when I came back from a trip to New York City in late December 1999.
The words told of my search for the spirit of my grandfather – my mother’s father – who came to Ellis Island in 1912 as a seventeen-year-old boy. There were also tidbits of stories I’d heard from my mother about her Depression-era childhood in Reading, Pennsylvania: stories about the grocery store that her family ran during the 1930s, about a younger brother who died of diphtheria, about characters like crazy Mrs. Pawnicki and superstitious Mrs. Mahoska who lived in their “United Nations” neighborhood on Canal Street ― stories about the ingenious ways people survived in a hoped-for, but sometimes harsh new world.
After reading that file, I had a new idea for my story for the church fundraiser. It would still be about putting down new roots, but it would be about people, not plants, being transplanted into strange soil and creating a life with the help of family and friends.
I called my mother that afternoon and asked her to tell me more about the Canal Street store. An hour and a half later, I had four pages on a yellow legal pad full of odd names and anecdotes, and over the next few weeks, we talked often to fill in the blanks in the stories.
The date arrived for the church’s event, and I told a version – the first version – of the story. But my mother wasn’t finished remembering. She loved being reminded of the people and places of her life, and enjoyed finding out what she couldn’t recall. She asked a 92-year-old neighbor about the gambling rackets that thrived in Reading in the ’30s. A reference librarian helped her locate books about the local bootleggers and breweries that flourished during Prohibition. She interviewed the women at her Senior Center about the games they played as kids. (“We’d hold the skinniest kid by the ankles and lower him down the storm sewer to retrieve the ball that got away from the kid playing the fire hydrant that was second base.”) And long after that first “Canal Street” phone conversation, the “transplanting” story is still growing.
I was lucky. My mother was only as far away as a telephone call. Her memory was sharp, but forgiving, too, so that talking about old times and telling the old stories didn’t leave her regretful or sad. She was a walking, talking reference library of a particular moment of history and what it was like to live in that moment of history. But she and other walking, talking libraries from my life – relatives, neighbors, teachers – have gone silent. I can no longer call and say, tell me what it was like when you worked in the cotton mill, tell me how you made those cinnamon pastries you used to give us neighborhood kids, tell me what it was like to teach a first-grade classroom with 52 children in it. Those libraries are gone, and now I wish I’d been more curious, more willing to ask and listen for the history they contained.
I treasure the serendipity that turned my gardening story into a personal story that turned into a history story. It reminds me that history isn’t just something that happened hundreds of years ago, or in faraway worlds, or to people only found in archives and libraries. Sometimes history gets personal, and just waits patiently for someone to ask about it.