The film makers did a wonderful job of revealing the emotional and social dynamics between the brothers and in exploring the memories each brother retained from this time period in their lives. As a family historian, it was so interesting to hear the differences in each brother's memories and in the emotions they associated with those memories. The eldest brother felt nothing but pain and suffering in his memories and lamented his experiences in having to grow up too soon. When they visited their childhood home, the middle brother remarked that he remembered good times there. The youngest brother remembered hiding in the cave, as a five year old, and not being able to yell or cry about anything, no matter what. Have you experienced this in your family history? Have different members your family, even members of the same generation, recalled experiences or events differently in their written or oral histories?
As a family historian, I think it's important to be aware of how personal histories and memories can be shaped by things like age and birth order. Older children are often given more responsibility in times of distress, and often are thrown into the role of provider and protector. Younger children may remain blissfully ignorant of what's happening around them, and, therefore, they might have these sort of peripheral memories that can be both sweet and poignant. Older children typically remember their elders better than younger siblings, while younger siblings may better remember household events that occurred after their older siblings had moved out to attend college or get married.
This is a discussion we can and should engage our young people in, especially for young people interested in genealogy. I also think that having this discussion with your family members can help each child develop a sense of empathy towards their siblings and a respect for the unique challenges each member of the family experiences within the family dynamic as a whole.
Activity: Sit down with your children and/or grandchildren sometime and ask them to remember a particular event or period in time. It could be a major family event like moving to a new place or a vacation or a reunion, or it could be a time when something unusual or even traumatic happened in your family or community. Ask each child to write down or draw what they remember and how they felt during that time. Urge them to be honest and open with their memories. Then, go around individually and share those memories with each other. Everyone will quickly see how each person has different perspectives of the same events and time periods. Consider discussing these questions with your family members:
How does each person's individual memories of a time or event shape a family's history?
How do the emotions we are feeling at a particular time affect how we remember events? Are you personally more likely to want to write down memories from the good times in your life or from the more challenging times of your life?
Is there such a thing as having 'right' or 'wrong' emotions associated with particular family events?
How can we work together to compose a family history that is loyal and sensitive to each family member's perspective of events, even when those perspectives conflict?
How has this activity changed how you will interpret your ancestors' personal journals and/or oral histories?
Hopefully, these questions will get a good discussion going amongst family members, and help them think more deeply about this very human (and, therefore, complex) aspect to family history. This activity is also beneficial to do with older generations at reunions or extended family gatherings. As we age, we lose some memories, but, in some ways, losing memories can make the strongest ones stand out in our minds, so it becomes interesting to hear what older people remember about not only family events, but also major news events, like the JFK assassination or the moon landing. Interviewing adult siblings together as a group can be quite eye-opening, and can help you understand that particular family's dynamic in a way that no photo or document really ever could.
You can watch Shalom Italia on PBS.org until August 6, 2017.
©2017 Emily Kowalski Schroeder