- January 10, 2012
- Posted by: Sharon Greenthal
- Category: family
Our lives are defined by our history. By the time we reach midlife, we can tell our story in a few sentences, summing up the most important things for a new acquaintance pretty quickly- mother, wife, writer, reader, friend.
If only our lives were really that simple. History can haunt us, make us long for the past or want to forget it all together. Pockets of time, days and months and, for some, even years, disappear from our memory, our history along with it. Some history we remember because its monumental – the day I moved across the country, the night I met my husband, the mornings my two children were born. One person’s history is defined by another’s, entwined in ways we may not even know – how important are we in someone else’s historical narrative?
What happens to history if no one re-tells it? Does it cease to have any meaning, or is it there, an undercurrent to the lives of those who are connected to a particular moment?
Some history is unbearable. I do not watch or read anything about the Holocaust, the history of that event so painful for me to dwell on and think about. Thankfully there are others who have made it their life’s work to keep the atrocities of those years front and center in our collective historical perspective, because I for one do not have the strength to do so.
Some history is enchanting. We can travel to a particular time through music, or books, or fashion, or a face. The difficulties of life seem to evaporate in a haze of memory. Only in recollection can we see how particularly beautiful a moment was.
When my grandmother was very old – in her 90s – her history was in her heart and mind. Everyone she had known when she was young had died, leaving her to tell and remember their stories. I listened to her tell those tales over and over, knowing that she was sharing them so I would remember – but also to keep those she loved with her at the end of her life. She gave me a packet of letters her father had written so I could take them home and scan them into my computer, and then return them to her. She did not understand what “scanning” meant, and was adamant about me carrying the letters on the plane, rather than checking them with my bag, for fear that they would be lost.
For me, those letters were physical evidence of my history, the history of my family, and I read them as I scanned them, hearing the long gone voice of my great-grandfather and the once-youthful voice of my grandmother. I understood more than ever how precious these letters were to her. They were physical evidence of the history of her life, and she treasured them as some treasure a family portrait or heirloom jewelry. I sent them back as soon as I could, knowing how they made her feel connected to her younger self, her past, and to those she had loved so much.
History is who we are. We can change the present and dream about the future, but we are forever connected to the past and those who came before us. Our history is written on our faces, heard in our voices, seen in the china we use to set our tables, felt in the rings we put on our fingers. We are human because we have a history.