Thursday, December 26, 2019

Yes, it is Special!

Christmas Day?
Last week I posted what I called "a special Christmas" blog, but one reader inquired on face book why I thought it was a special blog post for Christmas.  Here's my answer, and I consider it such an important Christmas reminder that I am keeping this week's post short to encourage readers to scroll down and read last week's post!

Christmas is a time when families often come together, young and old.  Because my father had inherited the family home built by his grandmother and his father, our home was the family gathering place, and I have wonderful memories of aunts, uncles, and cousins filling our home for the holidays.

How I wish that my memory contained all the family history shared during those holiday gatherings!  Last week's blog, which I hope you will scroll down to read if you missed it earlier, shares the importance of teaching young people their history--family and American.  I am fortunate that my mother chose a genealogy book with blank spaces to fill in family history as a shower gift for me when my husband and I married, and because of her unusual gift, I asked questions in order to fill in the spaces in that book.  (By the way, that was a wonderful gift for a young couple merging two families by their marriage.)  Yet, I wish my memory still contained all the family stories shared over the many holiday gatherings of my youth.

I suspect the picture above was taken on Christmas day when I was the little girl on the left and my cousin Anne was the taller girl with the hooded jacket.  The picture was taken in front of our farm house on an obviously cold day.  Anne's doll might have been a Christmas gift.  (The doll still had both shoes--and it seemed like doll shoes were often lost quickly.)  I appear to be holding something small that I cannot identify, and my guess is that we were told to select a favorite Christmas gift and to go outside to pose together.  Unfortunately, that is one of those family memories that I no longer remember. 

I hope all of you are having a wonderful winter holiday season, reminiscing and creating new memories!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Awareness of Our Past

Lest We Forget
Last week's post examined "What Makes America Great?" with the focus on our Constitution and the unique form of government our founding fathers created.  This week's post emphasizes the importance of the continuing need for Americans to know our history.  I have written in this blog just how difficult it is to interest young people in the importance of history, given their tendency to think that anything that happened a few years before they were born is ancient history and probably not worth knowing.

I just read a wonderful collection of speeches given at several universities by David McCullough in a book titled The American Spirit, Who We Are and What We Stand For.   One of those speeches, titled "Knowing Who We Are" given in 2005 speaks directly to the importance of knowing our past history.  McCullough writes:  "And it seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened.  History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at almost any point...  Actions have consequences.  These observations all sound self-evident.  But they're not--and particularly to a young person trying to understand life."

Visiting Historic Sites
McCullough offers several suggestions for making history more accessible to students, starting with doing a better job of making sure our teachers know history so that they can tell the stories of history in a more exciting way than by sticking closely to the dullness of textbooks.  His further suggestions for improved teaching of history include improving textbooks so that they are not so dreary, avoiding content that reads as if done by committee, and expanding the teaching of history to young children when they have a particularly facile ability to learn.  Beyond the classroom, encouraging parents to take children to historic sites, and to share with their children history and biography books they particularly enjoyed.  McCullough also urges parents to talk with their children "about what it was like when they were growing up in the olden days.  Children, particularly young children, love this." 

The last suggestion I referenced above had a particular resonance with me.  Recently, my husband and I were having a wonderful dinner with friends.  The father began sharing an interesting memory about his grandmother's brave immigration to America just in time to escape the Russian Revolution.  His story was filled with details that held the interest of everyone at the table.

Sharing ancestral history, in this case, my father's grade school
When he had finished, my husband spoke directly to the man's college-age children, urging them to find a way to record these family conversations, and urging them not to  delay too long.  Holidays are a perfect time to spend an evening with family, listening to and recording these wonderful  stories.  My husband asked if they had heard the stories their father had just shared, and when they replied that they had not, he emphasized that if these family stories were neglected, once their father was gone, the stories would be lost forever.  "If you wait too late," he warned them, "you would no longer be able to ask your dad to repeat them, would you?"

"No," both young people admitted, but the man's son added, "But, I could look the Russian Revolution up on my phone," pulling his phone out of his pocket.

Learning how choices make a difference
I confess.  These are good friends, and we are fond of their kids, but his flippant reply annoyed me, and I blurted out, "That sounds exactly like the smart-aleck reply a young man would make."  I probably should not have been so outspoken, and while I tried to make it a bit of a joke, I meant it.

Fortunately, our friendship is close enough that my comment did not end the discussion with hurt feelings, and everyone recognized the difference between imagining an ancestor in a historical moment and reading online a summary about immigrants leaving Russia for America.  It also sunk home with the young man that had his great-grandmother waited too late to leave, his ancestral line would have been interrupted and he would almost certainly not have been born.  That was a real opportunity for our young friend to recognize, as McCullough said, "that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened" in history.

To emphasize how stories can bring history alive, McCullough references E. M. Forster's definition:  "If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story.  That's human.  That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story."  Historian Barbara Tuchman understood that the secret to teaching history is simple:  "Tell stories."

Sharing my own  stories with high school graduates
American history is filled with compelling stories--exciting, tragic, triumphant--but we tend to teach them sequentially, like marking off years on an empty calendar, with the stories reduced to dates.  The more that family history is shared in stories the better their children will place themselves within historic events, and the more that teachers bring history to life with stories and biographies the more interesting and memorable history can be.

Our own lives, like the life of my young friend whose great-grandmother fled Russia, were shaped by our family history.  Collectively, our nation's past shaped the America in which we now live. How can we truly understand and appreciate what those generations before us did to shape this nation and give us the freedoms we enjoy if we are ignorant of our past? And, how can we recognize our own responsibilities if we ignore that inheritance from them?  As McCullough says:  "...we should never take for granted...all the work of others who went before us.  And to be indifferent to that isn't just to be ignorant, it's to be rude.  And ingratitude is a shabby failing."

Happy Holidays to all of you who have supported this blog.  Perhaps, if you gather with family during the holidays, you may find time to share family stories and create an awareness for the youngsters listening of their family's personal history and how the events and choices made by their ancestors brought them into existence.  As McCullough reminds us, nothing had to happen just the way it did.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What makes America Great?

Some of you who follow this blog may not realize that I am a published author of two books, one published by a university press and the other published by a respected New York publisher.  This means that both books faced the scrutiny of scholars or other knowledgeable reviewers to examine my research and reasoning.  For one of my books I was recognized as the Georgia Author of the Year for Nonfiction during the time we lived in Atlanta.  Both books dealt with history and the American Constitution.

I mention this to explain my motivation to devote nearly a decade to researching and writing a book about the late 1800s from the perspective of a community in southcentral Kansas.  The community in which I grew up was part of a movement strong and successful enough to have created a third party that challenged the two old political parties.  The People's Party of the late 1800s, created largely by farmers, laborers, and small businessmen, was one of the most, if not the most, successful third party in America's history.  Many people living today have never heard of the People's Party, although their ancestors may have been a part of the Populist Movement. 

They believed ordinary Americans mattered, and they believed in our Constitution.  What they also believed was that education is essential if America is to work as the founding fathers intended.  They knew what the Constitution said and how it was meant to work.  Although the People's Party faded into history, their movement left behind many of their goals, assimilated by the two old parties and adopted into laws we accept today without recognizing their roots in the forgotten People's Party.

Antonin Scalia
In a past post, I shared the words of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) from a speech he gave in 2011.  Although he acknowledged that most Americans consider the Bill of Rights  the source of America's greatness, he disagreed.  "The real key to the distinctiveness of America is the structure of our government," he insisted.  In other words, the separation of powers--a President, a House of Representatives, and a Senate, each operating as a check on the others is the source of our greatness.  As Scalia said, we Americans should "Learn to love the separation of powers..."

The founding fathers did not want our government to be a smoothly operating machine where there was no debate, no conflicting perspectives.  The House of Representatives has members elected by voters from various districts within their states, a mix of urban, rural, conservative, liberal, multiracial, of different faiths, educations, and income levels.  The Senate has two members from each state and must consider the entire population of the states each represents.  While these Representatives and Senators serve the people who elected them, they are not compelled to ignore their own knowledge nor conscience, and they are entitled to benefit from their own experience and judgment in deciding matters that come before them.  What amazing wisdom the founding fathers showed in creating America's unique system, with the checks and balances necessary to represent such a diverse citizenry.

James Madison
James Madison said it well:  "The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department of the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachment of the others.  ...It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  ...In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

So long as the men and women we send to Washington remember their responsibilities under the constitution, America will be great, but when they forget their personal responsibility to serve as the check and balance on our system of government, the very foundation of the Constitution begins to crack.

In Isaac Werner's time, the common man had begun to believe that those they sent to Washington and their state capitals were answering only to the wealthy, and they formed a third party to remind their elected leadership of the corruption of power and the danger of serving only one segment of the population, or of forgetting the importance of each of the three parts of our system checking and balancing the other two.  Every generation needs to be aware of what truly makes America great and every generation needs to remind those they elect of the danger of forgetting that the abuse of power can eventually be cast back on them when they are no longer the ones in control.

The Populist Movement had its roots in Texas, but at the peak of the movement, Kansas was at its center.  Finding the Journal of Isaac Werner was an exciting discovery, and it was his Journal that enticed me to learn more about the Populist Movement.  My Civil War veteran great grandfather did not join the movement, but two other great grandfathers that lived in the community did participate.  Perhaps some of you who follow the blog also had family in Kansas during the late 1800s that may have been part of the Populist Movement.  I hope my blog acquaints you with a historic political movement that swept our state and in which your ancestor might have been a part.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Getting to Know Willa

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
Last Monday evening was an Art Walk in Pratt, Kansas, and although it is primarily for artists, photographers, and crafts persons with things to sell, I was invited to share some of my work.  While I paint and draw for my personal enjoyment, and occasionally to do portraits for friends, I had a good reason to attend.

The centennial celebration of Willa Cather's My Antonia was last year, and for a special edition of the Willa Cather Review, Vol. 61, No.2 I did a series of six portraits of the main characters.  The original pastel portraits and a copy of the Journal are on the table in the photograph.

I am a stickler for illustrations that respect the text of the author.  If L. Frank Baum says that Dorothy wore a blue and white checked dress, that is what I expect the illustrators of the Wizard of Oz series of books to depict. 

So, naturally, before selecting which characters from My Antonia I wanted to portray, I read passages written by Willa Cather to learn how she had described them.  The portraits displayed on the table included cards with descriptive passages taken from Cather's novel that I used in deciding how to portray each of the six characters.

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
I didn't have any art to sell, but instead, I sold Willa!  I shared how she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, how she grew up just a few miles from the Kansas border, what a wonderful place to visit Red Cloud, NE is with so many recognizable sites from Cather's novels and short stories, and how much in common her stories have with Kansas during that era.  

I recommended my favorites, in addition to My Antonia--O Pioneers! and One of Ours, as well as a favorite short story set in Kansas, The Sculptor's Funeral.  I had checked the Pratt Library shelves with the librarian, and I told visitors that there are several of Cather's books available at the library.  One young couple that stopped by were intrigued by what I shared, and he took a photo on his phone to help him remember Cather's name, while his wife pondered which of Cather's books to recommend for her book club.

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
We are very fortunate in our region to have several local libraries that are wonderful, in addition to the recently remodeled Pratt Library.  Among those I visit are the libraries in Macksville, St. John, Stafford, Kinsley, and others a bit further from our home.

When I participate in the Art Walk and Plein Aire at the state fair, I always enjoy the children.  Because the Art Walk was in the evening, only a few children visited, but they were curious about the portraits.  One little boy was particularly proud of himself when he recognized that I was the woman in the drawing on the stand.

Thank you to the Library and other sites for hosting us, to those who organized the evening, and to those who came out on a calm but chilly winter's evening to support the Arts.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them,