During this pandemic, many of us are feeling vulnerable. Some may be wondering if or where we belong in a world that has dramatically changed.
Brené Brown says that our belonging to each other can’t be lost, but it can be forgotten. She came to understand the simple yet profound answer to the question of the difference between fitting in and belonging out of a conversation with a group of middle school students. “Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something” they explained. “Belonging is when others want you.”
With my background, Brené Brown’s thoughts on vulnerability and belonging led me to think about history, storytelling, and our use of selective memory to keep others out of our narrative, to ensure they don’t belong. If we confront our feelings during this pandemic, we may come to realize the ways that we have made others feel vulnerable in the past, perhaps by omitting or erasing their stories as if they don’t belong.
History isn’t what happened. It is a story about what happened. Those stories are often intertwined with place. In the study of history we learn that the one who tells the story controls the narrative. Whether intentionally or not, the storyteller may omit key details or confuse the context. Thanks to selective memory, a richer, layered history — someone’s story — is erased and forgotten.
All of a sudden, they don’t belong.
I was thinking of forgotten or erased history and the idea of belonging when considering the origin story of my wife’s family. Everyone has an origin story and many revolve around places. But what happens when someone erases you out of the story?
A cousin sent my wife, Candice, an article entitled Once More to the Old Barn about the indoor training facility for runners at Lincroft, New Jersey’s Christian Brothers Academy (CBA). The training facility is in an oval barn, or galloping shed, constructed in 1926 by the Whitney family of New York at their Greentree Stable farm. This unusual structure provided a space for the thoroughbred racehorses to train during the brutal winter months. CBA bought the property in 1958. And just like the racehorses, the runners at CBA found that having an indoor training facility led to championship outcomes.
So far, so good. The problem is that CBA, in its online history and in stories like the one above, glosses over the fact that the school did not buy the farm from the Whitneys. And why not? Donors and alumni will want to hear of the school’s connection to a wealthy and famous family, and the Whitneys did build the oval barn. CBA also mentions that the well-known cardiologist and running guru George Sheehan was a key factor in ensuring the sale took place. That story, however, leaves out a family that has meaning in our personal history, as well as the reason that Dr. Sheehan had connections to this particular property. That family belongs in the story.
The farm where CBA now sits was known at the time of the 1958 sale as JC Farms. Candice’s maternal grandfather, Charles Valentine Holsey (the C in the name), along with his oldest son, Joseph Holsey (the J), bought the farm in 1949 from a Mrs. Sherman, who had purchased it from the Whitney family. Mrs. Sherman did not retain ownership for long. As a Jew, she felt unwelcomed in the Lincroft community, so she sold the property to the Holseys.* JC Farms remained in the Holsey family for almost a decade until it was sold to CBA. Most importantly from our personal history, it is where my future father-in-law met the young woman who would become his wife, my wife’s mother, and my mother-in-law.
The Holseys — including a young Irene Ann Holsey — lived at JC Farms, where they stabled and trained their own horses. They would also rent out stables for others looking to race at nearby Monmouth Park when the track’s stables were full. One of the horsemen who came looking for space was Joseph J. Colando of Point-of-View Farm in Yardley, Pennsylvania, along with his son Andrew, a young equine veterinarian recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Colando was training his father’s horses, including the improbably named Uncle Miltie, and they rented stables at JC Farms so their horses could run at Monmouth Park. Dr. Colando met Irene Holsey while training at the farm and in 1950 they were married. Candice was born in 1951, the year Uncle Miltie was an early Kentucky Derby favorite. LIFE magazine took pictures of the horse in anticipation of a significant Derby-related story.** But Uncle Miltie came up sore, finished 8th in the Wood Memorial, and was subsequently pulled from the Derby field.
Candice has fond memories of JC Farms as a child, and we have heirlooms that date to the family’s ownership. And it was the Holsey connection that brings Dr. Sheehan into this story. His sister, Lorretto Sheehan, married William Holsey and they were known to my wife and all the family as Uncle Billy and Aunt Honey. Both were full of life, and I fondly remember Billy and Honey dancing the night away at our wedding. George Sheehan — it turns out — very likely knew of the property through the Holsey family.
I had the same feeling of erasure of history with a house connected to my family. When the Heritage Foundation in Franklin, Tennessee bought a house on Second Avenue just before it was to be demolished, they recognized it as the Bearden-Brown House. Bearden was my grandmother’s maiden name and she married George Brown. They lived here for a number of years. It is the house in Franklin where I went to visit my grandparents until my grandmother came to live with us several years after Granddaddy died. But the family that bought it, and did a wonderful job of restoration, decided they wanted to add their name to the house…so they just dropped the Brown and suddenly it became the Bearden Robertson House. Just like that, decades of Brown-family connections to the property disappeared.
As forgotten histories go, CBA’s gentle erasure of Mrs. Sherman and the Holsey family connections to their historic campus isn’t overly egregious. And the Robertsons were certainly justified in wanting their part of the story attached to my grandmother’s house. The storytellers have decided that these other eras don’t fit in their narratives. That decision doesn’t, of course, erase the family’s memories, but it does disconnect the written histories of these places from the families who cared for them for years.
Erasure in history is much more serious when it is intentional and comes with an agenda to distort a story. That intentionality in our nation’s past comes into play in dealing with those often seen on the margins of life. Selective memory is used to forget about all those who truly belong. It took institutions like New York City’s Tenement Museum to tell a fuller, richer, layered history of the millions of people who moved to and around the United States in pursuit of the American Dream.
Four decades after beginning my work in historic preservation, the effort to tell the full story in the places where it happened has expanded in countless ways. Yet there is still much to do.
Places connect with our lives through emotions and memories. Old places always have countless personal stories intertwined with the wood, brick, stone, and mortar; stories holding these places up, literally and figuratively, embedding the connections from the past into our lives today and in the future. Stories such as the one about a place where a family that originally immigrated from Ireland joined with another family that had its roots in Italy, to make a new life in the United States.
Those narratives should not be erased simply because it is inconvenient to tell the full story, or because we want to elevate only those who have wealth and fame. In the end, we’re all richer for understanding those connections and how ordinary places are nothing but extraordinary.
Have a good week.
More to come…
*The update on the ownership by Mrs. Sherman was provided by my mother-in-law after the original story was posted.
**The pictures in the body of this post of Uncle Miltie are from the LIFE photo shoot. Instead of a major Derby-related spread, the magazine published a small article commenting about the horse’s unusual name. (Uncle Miltie was the nickname for popular comedian Milton Berle). My mother-in-law still has many of the stunning photographic prints from the shoot in her possession.