Stories, the root of history

Stories, the root of history

When I worked as a tour guide, I would meet visitors who said they liked (or loved) history.

“History of what?” I would respond.

The stunned looks I got as my replies were sad, but they were a challenge.

I assured my tour members that I wasn’t going to spend some time on history, finish that, and go on discussing something else. Instead, I intended to discuss things historically, over time.

The word “history” in English is related to the French word “histoire” — which is the word for “story.” Properly handled, any history is the story of something — a place, a group of people, even a subject..

For example, one of the better books I inherited from my father, “Einstein in Berlin” by Thomas Levenson, is the story of both the city and the man from 1914 to 1932. Just when I was feeling like my German or Western European history was in good shape, Levenson would switch to explaining what Einstein was studying and other things he did at the time. Learning about the city through the work of one man helped me understand a critical time.

One of the things I’ve learned through grief for both of my parents and all of my aunts and uncles is that when someone has died, the best gift is a story. We talk about the dead “passing into history” (if our language is grand enough), but try thinking instead of them “passing into stories.”

I love to be with people who know me as my parents’ daughter, and one big reason is that something I do may remind them of something my parents did. I can wind up with a story to hear that I’d never heard before. So can they, if they wonder why all of us did something.

So, as ChicagoNow seems to be on the edge of passing into history, I’ll keep telling stories until I’m told to stop. Thank you for reading.

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook. If ChicagoNow suddenly becomes unavailable, please visit that page for information.


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  • I'm a bit confused. Maybe it would have helped if you saud what kind of tour guide. For instance, if in an art museum, I would be interested in learning something about the French impressionists other than "that's a nice picture." If an architectural tour, who as the architect, why that design, why the windows leak, etc.

    A history on Einstein in Berlin would obviously be incomplete as a history of Berlin, as he got out in time.

    On your last point, there must be something afoot, as you aren't the first to mention it. However, the history story is how and why the Tribune Co. went to pot over the past 20 years, as I implied in commenting on the last post.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for your interest, Jack. The tour guide stories were from a "house museum" -- a museum which was one of the first great "Gilded Age" mansions in Chicago. We were to tell the story of the house and its details -- which were tiny and plentiful -- and get done in an hour, so that I figured that someone's interest in the marble walls meant less time to talk about the wood carvings, vice versa, and others' need for some basic city history might break into time for explanation about when the house got electric light (very early), etc.

    As for the Einstein book, yes, it's incomplete -- 1914-1932. But it's very thorough about that time period.

    At the Art Institute, over a much longer period, I did discuss the Impressionists a lot -- but there, I was not a docent/tour guide, I was in Visitor Services, set in specific places. I could describe something and explain about it, and the Impressionists were a favorite and necessary topic, but I could not take someone to a particular painting unless I was on a break or lunchtime. In the case of the Impressionists, that often meant "I'm going there anyway -- come with me."

    As for what's afoot for ChicagoNow, your guess is as good as ours. You're right, it'll be a strange chapter in the story of the Chicago Tribune. I only hope it isn't the final one.

  • Since it was house tours, I can see interest limited to this was Potter Palmer's house, etc.

  • In reply to jack:

    It was the Driehaus Museum -- and sometimes, time had to be taken to describe that Mr. Driehaus didn't live there at the time; it had been the family home of First National Bank executives and others late in the 19th century and very early in the 20th. That's part of how I learned to ask what people already knew -- sometimes they had heard the wrong story.

  • P.S. I've seen only film of the Palmers' house, the castle that set the fashion for living on Lake Shore Drive. It was left to crumble and torn down in favor of apartments. Photos of its interior look very familiar thanks to its decorations, many of which are in the Art Institute. Looking at the photos in the Driehaus Museum gave me similar feelings.... the Nickersons, the original builders of the home, were some of the bigger donors to the young Art Institute.

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