It’s summertime and story time. Longer days. Hot temperatures with welcome breaks in the shade. Refreshing snacks of juicy organic peaches and nectarines. Extended evenings and cooling night stars. A perfect time for stories and history lessons as we recast our attention beyond the noise of distant politics and instead listen to real life and people that matter around us.
Oral histories are revealed in summer stories, personal accounts that may seem insignificant, yet allow us to explore the past. These tales embody rich details with distinct and personal perspectives. They may be triggered by summer produce or evening walks. I can remember once gorging myself with tomatoes and hearing my folks talk about why it was so important to have summer gardens. For them it wasn’t a hobby or pastime. Growing up in poverty and during the Great Depression meant every bite of food mattered. Growing your own food carried meaning. A fresh tomato suddenly became sweeter in the context of history.
Through summer exchanges, a sense of place is evoked. Stories take place in specific conditions and locales. In our Valley, the summer heat defines us, alters how we work and play. Phrases like “it’s a dry heat” came with winks and chuckles as well as experiential knowledge — anyone who has lived in a humid and hot climate understands the difference.
We create portraits of who we are by what we remember. Stories add voice of the everyday and real, not just data and facts, but experience. While nostalgia can dominate old stories, we also can identify what has changed or the past that remains with us. Too often today we are afflicted with historical amnesia, believing the current events upstage and cancel the past. For example, we are a nation of mostly immigrants, yet how quickly we neglect the stories of our own family histories and ignore the struggles that have always plagued our nation.
Experience can be revealed on a granular level, rich in emotions and senses. The sounds, flavors and images of summer with a brother or sister or grandparent fill our lives. I can taste the heat as I bite into the flesh of a warm peach basking in the afternoon sun. I can feel the cool watermelon chill in my mouth, then throughout my entire body as I chomp on the red slice. I gulp the instant refreshment of a cool drink, even allow some of it to drip down my chin and onto my clothes. Ahhh...
A personal memory is enhanced when I think of where I was when I consumed a summer treat and who I shared the moment with. Many of us can fondly recall sitting outside and spitting watermelon seeds, who we were with and the emotional joy of a shared moment. (A younger generation might then ask: watermelons had seeds?)
We can write our own eulogies with summer stories that capture our identity. The funny clashes with siblings and friends during long summer days. The adventures only possible during free time without the constant watchful eyes of an adult. The endeavors of laboring in the heat or long days that allow us to complete a project in the still light of 15 hour work days.
Summer is the season to ask questions — the follow-up inquiries that will fill in the blanks of history. A tale is told, but the real story can be unveiled only when we ask for clarification: Why or how and what did you feel?
Some may wonder if the digital age we live in will destroy these stories. The opposite is true: more than even we need to find significance in these simple exchanges. Current media trends often lack reflection with quick sound bites without sorting what’s important. We are bombarded with information — some real, some fake, often unfiltered “junk food news” we stuff ourselves with until the next bite.
Summer stories can become powerful mini oral histories of people. They reveal more than we realize because we can have the option to ask “What do you mean?” and receive a sincere response. We can clarify and seek expansion of meaning, especially about family and those we care about as we learn what forces shaped identities and the historical baggage we all carry into the future. For example, in a story I can ponder the significance of what it was like for my grandparents to never learn English yet proclaim they too were American.
These stories are like an essential early scene in a movie — the moment that provides vital characterization. Later we see a flashback to that scene which clarifies much. Now I understand who and what I have become, mostly stemming from a simple summertime story recalled. It’s all about building relationships.