What we’re missing is the voice of our elders, explaining why things happened as they did, and what it was like there, then. Without this context names and dates are just abstractions, as real as a virtual kiss. Without knowing the challenges and compromises our ancestors faced we’re like machines making lists of rare ingredients for foods we can never taste.
Our stories are never just our stories. My father’s story is also mine, and my children’s. The John Henry legend pitted a steel-driving man against a steam drill, but it also foretold of the coming mechanization that would send so many Appalachians off to work in northern factory towns. Wendell Berry urges that “The young must learn from the old, not necessarily and not always in school… The community knows and remembers itself by the association of old and young.” If we commit ourselves to preserving our elders’ memories we can ensure that when our children are ready to listen, we will have something to tell them.
— David T. Miller, “Oral Histories: Recording your family’s voices of the past”