As I stood on the porch of the triple decker and listened to their stories, tears came to my eyes.
The girl who quit school after grade eight because she didn’t have the proper clothes for high school. The pride in her voice for her brother with a ‘sharp mind’ who went on to become a judge – because she contributed her wages to his education once hers had stopped. Sugar on bread moistened under the tap as a sweet treat. A wagon cobbled together with whatever scraps a band of neighbors could find.
These are the intonations and inflections of lives lived, identities formed, cultures cemented in history.
The Museum of Work and Culture, in the heart of Woonsocket, RI, tells the story of the many French-Canadian citizens who contributed to the mill industry there. I have not a French-Canadian bone in my body, but their story of immigration and integration is that of my ancestors as well. The hard jobs they took, the harsh living conditions they endured for a better life – if not for them, then their children.
The power of their stories lies in their telling.
The Museum of Work and Culture does a fabulous job of incorporating audio recordings of the oral histories they’ve collected. Quite frequently, there is not a face to match the voice; it is over the images of a film or piped into the replica of a 1920s triple decker front porch. This fact may make them even more affecting. The voices of the past reach into the consciousness, reminding us they are gone, but their mark remains.
They urge me to record my husband’s great-grandmother’s story from Arctic, RI. They remind me to dig deeper into my great-great-grandmother’s story in the mills in Lincoln, her trip from Massachusetts, and Nova Scotia before that.
History is very much alive and well. It is places like The Museum of Work and Culture that remind us of that – and of the fact that we wouldn’t be who we are without it. We cannot let these important stories die. It is the stuff we are made of.