February 5, 2015: Story telling as local history

February 5, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Several things happened this past week that were strangely related. The blizzard came through. The town released the list of projects for which it recommends Community Preservation Act (“CPA”) funding next year. And my friend Tim’s aged mother, a lifelong resident of Belmont, unexpectedly passed-away. The three events in such close proximity got me to thinking about the lost art of story-telling.

Rudyard Kipling once observed “if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Belmont loses part of its rich history every day.

The blizzard of 2015 made me wonder what folks did that day. On our street, neighbors came together to collectively clear the sidewalks, using more snowblowers than shovels. I wonder, however, who might have regaled us with stories not merely about the Blizzard of 1978, but about the Blizzard of 1958, or what came to be known as the Great White Hurricane of 1888?

Not just the adults, nor just public officials, of course. What kids found the biggest, fastest, sledding hill on that March day of 1958? And how did they get there (and with whom)? Who made the best storm-day corn chowder or baked the best storm-day bread?

The blizzard last week brought back to me how much I miss Jo and Connie Venuti, the sisters who ran the little market in Waverley Square (to whom I turned to stock up on pre-storm supplies). Jo and Connie would tell stories about Belmont that could hold my attention for hours.

But this year’s blizzard also created new stories. Standing in the middle of our street, I listened to Steven talk about how he (with his puppy Kelvin) took advantage of snow-clogged roads to tour a car-free, bike-free Belmont, a sight rarely seen today.

I wonder what stories Tim’s mom could have told (weather-related or not) about life in Belmont, not only when she was growing up, but as she watched her children (and then her grandchildren) grow up. Did she (and her childhood friends) swipe apples from Belmont’s prodigious orchards (as my brothers and I used to swipe the occasional strawberry in Iowa)?

“From the dawn of community,” says Barbara Ganley, founder and director of Community Expressions, “wisdom has lived in stories.” Ganley says stories reveal “the rhythms of a place.”

One allowable use of CPA funds involves historic preservation. This year, Town Meeting will be asked for funds to help restore the historic Homer House and to renovate the Wellington Station.

Belmont devotes considerable time to caring for its historic buildings. Belmont renovated both the Homer municipal building and Town Hall. The Benton Library, historically significant buildings at McLean Hospital, and the Waverley Square, Harvard Lawn and Belmont Center fire stations have all been preserved.

The contemporaneous experiences of a community, however, are also worth preserving. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Federal Writers Project (“FWP”) recorded thousands of life histories. The purpose of the FWP, an agency of the New Deal, was to document the ways in which ordinary people were coping with the Great Depression. More recent work, says the American Social History Project of George Mason University, has helped “realize oral history’s potential for restoring to the record the voices of the historiographically silent.”

Efforts might well be justified to preserve our community’s spoken memories. Whether located in our Municipal Library, at the Belmont Historical Society, Belmont High School, the Belmont Media Center, on YouTube, or elsewhere, whether and how to create an ongoing oral history project to capture and preserve the lives of ordinary Belmont residents, young and old, merits a public conversation.


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