If anyone had told me in my youth that I would one day become the director of a history museum, I would have laughed so hard. I loved my history teacher, Miss Geneva Kirk, but didn’t like learning all those lists of dates and wars. I admired her because of her way of making students want to be curious. To this day, my curiosity about everything enhances my life in many ways, or sometimes gets me into a bit of trouble. But that is curiosity, too.

Rachel Desgrosseilliers

I write this because in my 75 years I would never have thought seeing today happening. I knew that, someday, the shared history of people’s untold life stories during my 15 years at Museum L-A would again shed light on curiosity. Little did I realize how much I had learned from those stories. And, how thrilled I was the day a 9-year old boy, who was having a hard time in school, left our history museum jumping with joy saying: “I didn’t know that learning could be so much fun!”

Even under the worst circumstances, our ancestors held their heads high and taught their children and grandchildren to value those things others took for granted. Doesn’t this crisis teach us again how much we take for granted because it’s always there for our convenience? How intensely our everyday doings are now missed.

History also shows we seem to need labels to help us define our place in society. For eons, people categorized themselves as “better” for one reason or other. In my youth we were “poor” in other people’s eyes, but we sure were happy as a family. Our “better than” friends seemed to feel they were more than us. Something hard to understand as children. Our parents, however, taught us that things didn’t make the person and that we could do and be anything we wanted.

Color, gender, class, religion, physical handicaps, sexual orientation and pedigree are just a few ways in which one group can divide us from one another. However, this virus shows us once again that it affects all peoples, all walks of life, all ages, all circumstances. Could we take this hard time to see that, past all the variations, we are all the same with similar hopes, dreams, fears, strengths and weaknesses? Could our hearts and minds help us sway to the beat and show us the way to a better world, as did our ancestors in their struggles, so that, in the end, we would be better together?

Living my own history, I am trying to find a way where my labels of wife, daughter, museum director, “memere” and (now) retiree not be the only things that define me. Instead, I hope that with every new person I meet and interact with will represent the chance for me to grow, because I was curious enough to dig deeper than the surface.

I have always loved my community, even during the few years I was away, learning or following my own path. This is a community of resiliency and goodness. Our ancestors and their capabilities of being strong, caring, hard-working, optimistic, innovative with a huge spirit of “we can do it” is ours to remember and emulate because they taught us, whether, Greek, French-Canadian or Lithuanian, rich or poor, CEO or stock clerk — we are community.

After World War II, we saw our ancestors bring about a better world — people caring for neighbors, families reacquainting and strengthened, businesses taking out their innovation spirit, ordinary people coming up with solutions, businesses showing their generosity, young people learning to make sacrifices. Kindness was not a dirty word and there was respect for elders.

Sound familiar? Isn’t that what we are seeing again today with our present situation? People worrying about our loved ones in nursing homes; young people like Lewiston High School seniors at the Green Ladle giving up their special school trip to help feed those in need; local businesses, already so generous, stepping up to the plate, showing even more of their generosity; innovation from citizen’s garages or young people’s bedrooms to manufacturing plants moving to help; families getting to know each other again; kindness seeming to replace indifference; and people getting to know and care for their neighbors again.

Moving toward the last quarter of my life, like our ancestors, I look with humility to reap my own power so that at the end of the journey I can learn when to stand small so others can feel tall.

In this mixed up and uncertain time, I wish everyone the life force of curiosity in the importance of history to lead you into digging deep into the spirit of our ancestors. May the histories of those who lived here before us and our own histories let us find that essence of “we can do it.” As our ancestors left us the legacy of being strong, we can leave a new legacy to our children and grandchildren to let them know how we decided to handle our present situations.

We are a strong and resilient community. We have done it; we are doing it again because that is the kind of community we are. We have history on our side. We are history in the making!

Rachel Desgrosseilliers is the former executive director of Museum L-A. She lives in Lewiston.

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