What We Have Lost: Our Stories Make Us One

“Thanksgiving lessons jettison pilgrim hats, welcome truth”
This headline from the Associated Press exploded inside my skull when I saw it three days ago, and in the dust that settled, I read an important lesson about what has been lost as the enemies of American culture have whittled away at the stories that once united us in the effort to make us hate ourselves and apologize for our glorious history. Please have patience, and follow me as I trace the path by which I reached some fresh but troubling insights into our current moment.

French burnt peanuts, known as Springer peanuts to my hardscrabble Okie progenitors

Family stories
My mother grew up during the 1930s, second to last of eight children of a sharecropper in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. She often told the story of the Christmas when her younger sister, Mary, learned there was no Santa Claus. Their older sister, Louise, was already married with a daughter of her own, Wanda, who was a year older than Mary, her aunt. On the Christmas morning when Mary was 5 and Wanda was six, they awoke and scrambled to open their Christmas stockings. Wanda found a beautiful bride doll in hers. Mary got “Springer peanuts.” Mama told many other stories. In one, she hated to go to school because her shoes had cardboard soles and were tied together with baling wire. But there was also the one in which their father, Charlie Culpepper, promised to buy the family a brand-new car if everyone could refrain from singing for 24 hours; he knew he would never have to make good on that promise.

Rex A. Byerly, 1936

Daddy didn’t tell so many stories, but he certainly had at least one good one. By all reports, Rex Byerly was probably what we would now call mentally disabled. One morning when he didn’t want to go to school, so Daddy’s story went, Rex hid behind the window shades of his classroom on the southeast-facing side of Noftsger Hill School (the same room where I had Miss Setka in the fourth grade), pulled down to keep out the blazing sun of late morning. All the children laughed and pointed when they saw the crisp silhouette of Rex Byerly as the teacher entered the room. And when those sniggering hooligans from Noftsger Hill went to high school, they decided to mock the new-fangled idea of student government by electing Rex as the first student-body president of Globe High School.

And of course, we made stories of our own. I recently retold on Facebook one of the most memorable from the summer when my sister, Triss, was about three and our family was crossing the desert to visit our relatives–Wanda’s family!–in California. We stopped in Yuma, Arizona, one of the seven hottest cities in the world, for lunch and gasoline. The roadside diner was buzzing with flies, and my sister said in her loud and gruff toddler’s voice, “Shoulda brought the swat.” A few years earlier, I enacted a story of my own when I disrobed, hung my dress, my panties, and the apron I wore because Grandma did, on a mulberry tree, and startled the living daylights out of said grandparent when I walked through her front door in my birthday suit.

These stories and others of the sane ilk were the glue that held the Culpepper-Bozzola union together as a family, and I feel pretty sure my sister still tells them to her granddaughter, Genevieve. We grew up in the kind of household where we two sisters loved to pore over Mama’s photo album, and phrases from our family stories (Stillwater pencil, mad dog) never failed to cause peals of laughter.

Fairy tales and Bible stories
A larger circle was enclosed by the fairy tales and nursery rhymes we heard at our parents’ knees as children. We all knew the lessons imparted by “my, what big teeth you have” and “not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” We learned about tuffets and curds and whey because of Little Miss Muffet. We were afraid when Hansel and Gretel got lost in the woods, and we rejoiced when Cinderella put her foot into the glass slipper. Not only our parents, but also our teachers repeated these stories in the comforting sameness of childhood.

We learned to read through the same adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally. Mrs. Williamson read to all her third graders about Mowgli and Br’er Rabbit and the woodland creatures of Thornton W. Burgess. We knew the smile of the Cheshire Cat and the fence whitewashed by the wiles of Tom Sawyer. And we read on our own–Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Little Women, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Each year of high school, we all read the same Shakespeare play (except junior year, which was devoted to American literature). We (the girls, at least) delighted in the lives of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Catherine and Heathcliff.

American children of the past were united, too, by the stories we learned in Sunday school. Not only could we tell about baby Moses in the bulrushes and David with his slingshot and Saul on the road to Damascus. We even enacted the story of the Nativity as part of the public-school Christmas pageant.

“Boyhood of Lincoln” (Eastman Johnson, 1868)

Our history, our story
Like every civilization, we also had our cultural myths. Like those of every culture, they were part fact and part invention, but in the telling, they conveyed the Truth of who we are as a people.

When we heard the legend of the boy George Washington, what mattered was not whether he chopped down a cherry tree. What mattered was that the Father of Our Country was a boy and a man of honor; he could not tell a lie. And when we learned that Abraham Lincoln read his schoolbooks by firelight in his family’s log cabin, the literal cabin and the actual fireplace had far less import to our lives than the moral of the story–that the Great Emancipator grew up poor and yearned for knowledge.

Pilgrim hats and Indian corn
And so we arrive at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation held a three-day celebration of their successful harvest in 1621. Fifty colonists, all that remained of the 100 arrivals on the Mayflower, were joined by King Massasoit and ninety Wampanoag men for a feast of venison, wild turkeys, fish, and Indian corn, among other dishes from the year’s bountiful harvest. These details come to us from separate first-hand reports by Edward Winslow and William Bradford. From the mythic tale that grew around those sparse accounts, we as American schoolchildren learned valuable lessons: The hard lives and grim deaths of the colonists who arrived on the Mayflower, Squanto’s invaluable assistance in growing corn and setting up trade pacts with local tribes, and grateful celebration of cooperation and bounty.

These lessons were not the whole story, but they were undeniably part of it. Significantly, they were the parts that could teach us values, make us feel good, and bind us together as Americans. We had plenty of time to learn the more sobering lessons of history. And so in due time, we learned about the evils done to Native American tribes, just as we learned about slavery and internment camps and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But now we have gone too far. As reported in the article I cited at the beginning of this essay, children in Massachusetts elementary schools are no longer allowed to don colonial dress in the Thanksgiving celebration: “Now taboo, the costumes were abolished in 2018, and the district is working to expand and correct classroom teachings on Native Americans, including debunking Thanksgiving myths. . . . Students as young as kindergarten are now being taught . . . that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag were not friends, and that it’s important to ‘unlearn’ false notions around the feast.” A “social studies coach” (coach?) in the Arlington Public Schools near Boston, remarks, “We want students to engage with what really happened, with who lived here first, and to understand that there was no such thing as the New World. It was only new from one side’s perspective.”

Like it or not (and I do happen to like it, very much indeed) that one side is our side. Whatever our color or ethnic origin or religion, Americans qua Americans are descendants of Jamestown and Plymouth and those who followed. We are products of Western civilization. We are people formed by Christianity and Greco-Roman philosophy,  by the Magna Carta and the Enlightenment, by the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions, by democracy and rationalism and natural law.

Yes, we must face ugly truths that mar our history from time to time. But in so doing, we must not lose sight of the stories that make us proud of our heritage, motivate us to live up to the values of the heroes of our past, and bind us together with a shared identity–Americans, whose fathers brought forth 244 years ago “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

I am thankful for those Founding Fathers, and I am thankful for the great experiment they set in motion. Only time will tell whether the unity found in our shared stories or the discord sown by the enemies of the American vision will prevail.

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