“A Story Lost Forever.”

BACK WHEN: Your family history is the most important history

  • By John McNutt For Peninsula Daily News
  • Saturday, December 3, 2022 1:30am
  • LifeClallam County

WELL, HERE IT is, December. Another year is wrapping up. Soon New Year’s Eve will be upon us. We have taken New Year’s Eve and turned it into a time for parties. Of course, there is nothing too significant about changing a digit on your calendar.

Not too long ago, New Year’s Eve was know as Watch Night. Many churches held a Watch Night service.

For many African American churches, it was a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was enacted on Jan. 1, 1863.

The tradition of Watch Night goes back to the early 18th century, when Christians began marking the time by gathering together to reflect upon the past year and to contemplate the coming year.

It was also a time to make personal resolutions for the coming year. We hear a great deal about New Year’s resolutions and how easily we break them. We may be weak, but it is still a good idea to desire continuation of the good you do and to improve your dubious behaviors.

So, I want to encourage you to make some important resolutions this January. More later.

I write a history article every month. It is fun to write history articles. That’s one reason I write them.

Another reason is to encourage you to look into your own family’s history.

We live in a society that celebrates individuality. With that, we don’t seem to be out there sharing as many stories as in times past. We lack interest in other people’s family stories. The past is passé. The only thing most people are concerned about is the now. But it is hard to learn from the past if you simply ignore it.

I believe we need to hang onto the stories within our local history. We get many interpretations of global history. Likewise, too, with county, state, and national history. What we lack is recording our personal, family, and neighborhood history. These are all important parts of our collective story.

I don’t know your story. I know nothing about your family. So, you have stories to tell me. Do you share your family’s stories? Have you identified those photos you have sitting around in an album? How about those old letters?

What people remember can too often be condensed into an obituary. Key dates, plus schools attended, plus jobs they held, plus the names of family members. Of course, obituaries never say anything unkind about the person.

Is that the whole story? Consider a question. Is that all you really want to be remembered about you?

Is your legacy nothing more than statistics?

When I write these articles, I see part of my task as reminding people that we are part of a much larger story. I also see it as fundamental to look as much as possible into the humanity of it. Those people lived through struggles. Everyone has foibles. No one led a saintly pure life. All these things help define who these people were. Good or bad, people’s fears, struggles, and faults helped define them.

I spent a lot of time with my uncle, Dr. Harlan McNutt. He was intrigued by history. He was a storyteller. I heard those stories many times. But I made a serious error in judgment. I thought I would always remember them. Alas,my memory fades as I grow older. Frankly, many stories are lost because neither Harlan nor I wrote them down.

I have boxes of old photographs. Most are not labeled. There is no identification on them. For me, I would like to figure it out. Because without that information, they will have no significance for my children or grandchildren. Their story is lost. Boxes of old photos seem destined for the landfill.

These days, it seems that history is treated like a luxury or a hobby. A test of your knowledge of trivia.

There is an attitude of “Who cares?” Learning from the past is a great idea that is almost never taken seriously.

Do you know what a reliquary is? If you have a Roman Catholic background, they may be familiar to you. A reliquary is something made to hold sacred memorabilia. Many of you have a personal reliquary. It could be a display case, a China cabinet, or that old portrait hanging on the wall.

They are silent reminders of the past. But how deep do you look at them? Did your parents struggle to pay for that furniture? Was there something going on in the family when that picture was taken? Did your grandmother pour over that Bible in dim light, praying for her children?

We don’t have to break from the past to be modern or relevant. Maybe some of these things remind us of more stable times. Old things can be powerful for us. It is a way of keeping our memories of things that happened in our families and communities. But old things cannot help us see history without a story.

Another part of your family’s story is to look at it through historical eyes. What influenced your family at that time? What was normal for them?

We are all citizens of our time and place. We are all products of the influences upon us. Influences such as our friends, where we were born, the education we received, the media services we listen to, and the theological tribe we associate with. These all have a massive influence on us.

But we should also remember that each period of time has its own set of rules and influences. This can taint how we view and think about historical events. We see that in cancel culture where celebrity status or high esteem is removed from a person, place, or thing based upon an offensive behavior or transgression. We forget their actions may have been shaped by the culture they lived in and it was normal.

I mentioned I had some important New Year’s resolutions for you. Here they are:

Resolve to document my family’s history. Resolve to identify those photographs I have. Resolve to tell the story behind the things your family has cherished.


John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at woodrowsilly@gmail.com.

John’s Clallam history column appears the first Saturday of every month.

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