Phyllis Britt

Phyllis Britt

In my Sunday School class we’re studying Micah, one of the minor prophets. This prophet’s writings span the Hebrews’ history, including the time of the exile to Babylon through the return of the people – the remnant – to the land God had promised would always be there.

In the process of the discussion in our class it was mentioned that the younger generation returning to the Promised Land knew very little of “home.” Home, for them was Babylon. It was all they knew. Exile lasted about 58 years. Think about that – 58 years. In those days that was more than the average lifetime. Those who were freed to return “home” hadn’t lived in Judah or Israel – ever. They had grown up in a relatively urban society. They returned to rubble. They returned to a country they did not know.

So how did the returning generation of people learn what their families had lost? How did they learn to appreciate that family tradition? Before the exile, life centered, in large measure, around the 12 tribes of Israel. After the return, the central guiding force was family.

This discussion led me in several directions in my own life. Without the elders in families telling their personal history, the succeeding generations can’t easily appreciate where that family has been and, as a result, where their family is going.

First, I thought about my parents. They were the World War II generation, the first to have easy access to automobiles and who, as a result, thought more seriously about moving far from home. Prior to that time, many, many Americans grew up in the same community, sometimes in the same homes that their grandparents lived in. A few of those survive. We have friends whose great-grandparents built the home their grandparents and then parents lived in all their lives. And there are some families in North Augusta who can trace their history to a time before this was even a city.

But so many of us learned what life was like through family stories. When I was 4, we moved from rural North Carolina – and life as tenant farmers – to the “big city” and jobs that required driving there every day. I have virtually no connection to the life my parents grew up in. Not only did I grow up in a two-income household – definitely not typical for the post-WWII era family – but I also grew up in a “normal” family where both parents were together, and both parents were dedicated to making my life better than theirs had been. But I only had two cousins nearby, despite my parents both being the babies in families of five or six siblings with too many cousins to count. If my parents had not shared their stories, I would never have realized what a great childhood I had. For example, I have previously related that my mother grew up in foster care and was beaten at age 4 because she fell asleep in the cotton field when she was supposed to be picking cotton; and my father was often put in charge of the family still because my granddaddy said he was the only one who could be trusted not to drink all the potential profits.

So as I sat in Sunday School class, I considered what stories we have to tell. Yes, I realize that in 2019 anyone can find out all sorts of things on the internet; however, that personal input is invaluable.

Next I reflected on a class I’m taking on Supreme Court cases that originated in South Carolina (part of the USCA Academy Of Lifelong Learning), when the professor pointed out something truly profound, in my estimation. We were in class on Sept. 11, and she said, “It struck me this week that this year’s students weren’t even alive when 9-11 occurred.” Here we are, thinking about where we were and what we were doing during that life-changing event, and yet these kids have no first-hand experience of what life was like before 9-11 and how it has been forever changed after.

At the same time, I’ve been watching PBS and other channels this week. The Ken Burns series on country music has brought back so many thoughts of where I was when I first heard a particular song. I wasn’t ostensibly a country music fan, but my daddy was. As a result, so much of that time is forever connected to how my parents reacted to certain stars and their songs – not unlike my experiences with my own kids. As schmaltzy as it is, I still cannot listen to “Butterfly Kisses” without tearing up.

Then I also saw a show on the life and death of John Kennedy. There is another life experience that is indelibly imprinted on the brains of all who lived through it. My children do not have any concept of what this did to my generation – except for my shared stories of how it affected me. (As an aside, I recently made a remark about how much my son had loved John-Johns when he was little. One of the people listening had no idea what I was talking about – yet, who of my generation does not envision John Kennedy Jr. standing in his little iconic outfit saluting the casket of his father on international TV.)

And finally, my son is the one who has asked us all to record conversations with his 95-year-old grandfather talking about growing up in rural North Carolina and his subsequent experiences in the South Pacific during World War II. Oh, how I wish I had pressed my own father to talk about his life running communication lines for Gen. Eisenhower from the beaches at Normandy all the way to Berlin. Except for a few comments here and there, that part of my family history is lost forever.

Yes, I say again, you can read about these things, you can watch interviews with other veterans, but there’s nothing like keeping that family history alive.

My children didn’t have the luxury of growing up with daily access to grandparents with tales to tell. Fortunately, my grandchildren are close enough that they hear about my life first hand. In some ways we have circled back, as many families have returned to raise their children where they grew up.

So my parting shot is this: There is no substitute for hearing those family stories “straight from the horse’s mouth.” When you see something on TV, take the time to tell your children/grandchildren what it meant and what it still means to you.

Share those family stories. Keep those experiences alive. It’s the only way the next generations will have any idea how we got where we are today.