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  • Writer's pictureACTIVHISTorian

"Activate" a family's history-and legacy

In a recent article about Caroline Kennedy in her role as U.S. Ambassador to Australia, President John F. Kennedy's daughter was quoted as saying that she wanted to "make history 'more active.'" Exactly!

Few of us have the kind of family history associated with the Kennedys, or their wealth and generational power. And very few may be able to travel to far-flung locations to activate history by taking a swim between tropical islands. But we can all make history "more active."

In her case, Kennedy has increasingly been working to, as the article put it, "activate her family's legacy for diplomacy." What might each of us do to activate our own family's legacy?

Caroline Kennedy in Solomon Islands

Ambassador Kennedy talking with descendants of Solomon Island scouts who saved her father. Matthew Abbott for the New York Times.

Kennedy was in the South Pacific's Solomon Islands to visit the site of her father's survival, along with ten others, when a Japanese destroyer laid waste to their torpedo boat, the now-famous, PT-109, on August 2, 1943. She and one of her sons, John Schlossberg, were paying tribute to her father, but also to those on the islands who helped Lt. Kennedy and other crew members survive, fulfilling a bit of the unfulfilled promise he had made to return.

Descendants of those who helped the crew members greeted Kennedy and Schlossberg. When Kennedy was Ambassador to Japan (2013-17), she met the widow of Kobei Hanami, commander of the destroyer that rammed PT-109. President Kennedy had also nurtured a friendship with Hanami. When she met his wife, she showed Caroline a photo of the President with an inscription: "To Captain Hanami, late enemy--present friend."

Her swim between two islands marking the 80th anniversary of that long-ago ordeal was one way she was making history more active.

What about the rest of us? What if we don't have the time, reputation, resources, and documentation of a heroic event from World War II or similar?

It's true that few share the particulars of experiences associated with President Kennedy or his daughter. But their lives reflect events millions experience in their own ways, as well as moments of celebration, tragedy, survival, grief, and contributing to examples of courage, leadership, decision-making, and significant mistakes or embarrassments--even secrets that find ways of slipping out.

When you think about your own life or that of a family member, what would you like to know more about? Are there silences or absences in the record? Why might that be?

Granted, our curiosity can lead us to discover things we weren't expecting--things that surprise us. Sometimes we may wish we didn't go looking! But most of the time we can discover answers to questions by asking, by seeking answers, by considering who might have information or where information might be stored. And whether or not it makes us feel uncomfortable, validated, proud, or a bit sheepish, history is what it is and putting on a blindfold doesn't change it.

Overall, notice what draws your attention, what information is visible. But then, what is missing? What don't you know and where might you find out more?

We can all play roles in activating our family history so that it can be more than stories that disappear.

How might you creatively experience a bit of history even if you weren't around when it happened? Think about it.

Damien Cave. (21 August 2023). "Where her father became a hero, Caroline Kennedy redefines diplomacy." The New York Times.

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