Living with History

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.

heirloom, family, history, memories, aging, 1935, remember, nostalgia, midlife, empty nest
Letter from my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother, 1935

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.

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16 Comments

  • As I read, my history kept flashing in front of my eyes, but when I got to your grandmother’s letters, I teared up. Excellent post Sharon. I need to go write a letter -Kelly

  • You are so luck and so wise! I regret not sitting down with several people before their time on earth was done, and listen and write all of their stories and history. This was really nice and what a sweet note♡

  • Teri

    Beautifully written…you brought back wonderfull memories of my adorable grandmother:)Great post!

  • Treasures buried in words on paper… beautiful. My mom tells me now, that the hardest part of aging is losing the people you love, not so much because they are gone (though that is hard too) but because “we lose a part of our history, with everyone that goes.” I think there is truth in that, and your grandmother must enjoy the ties to the past, in the touches she feels within the words.

    I really enjoyed reading this.

  • Elaine

    Lovely story. My mother is now ninety-nine years old and has dementia. All of her siblings are gone. My brother is gone. My father has been gone for thirty years. I remember the stories she used to tell. Some she still does remember, some she doesn’t. When she’s gone, so much history will go with her. Your story makes me wonder again what will happen when handwritten letters disappear in favor of email and Twitter. How will history be written and remembered in the future? Thank you for a thoughtful and wise essay.

  • Laurie

    Great Blog!! This is why I love history so much and why I was a History major. It is all about the stories. How wonderful that you have these memories and someone told you their stories. Should we all print are e-letters and save them. Makes you wonder.

  • This post is very near and dear to my heart. I’ve been researching my family history for nearly 15 years and now care for my grandparents photograph collection. If those old images could talk…

    On my blog I write about anything connected to York County, Pennsylvania history. Sometimes it’s a simple piece of paper found at a local junk store, but I know there’s a story to be found if I take the time to search for it.

    • It’s great that there are people like you to preserve the history of towns, cities, even distinct homes and streets. I am sure it’s a wonderful treasure hunt for you! Thank you for reading.

  • joyce campion

    I just recently read my grandmother’s journals. It is amazing to read something and hear the voice or see the personality in the words as you read them. It allowed me to continue to get to know her and understand her life and feel her presence years after she passed away.

  • While I agree the written words are not probably going to be something our great grand children will be able to hold, BUT I think our blogs and all the articles we all write will serve the same purpose. I print out everything that I publish online and have learned from crashes, flash drive backup everything, too.
    Our history will be electronically saved, I think.
    Great post. I am working on my own mom’s story and it is very difficult to write. Lovely to listen to her tell me, but for some reason, it is very hard for me to write. I have lots of notes and lots of thoughts, but for now, it’s just that. A notebook.

  • Susan

    I recently painted a picture of the pear tree that has been on my mother’s family farm for as long as my grandmother can remember and she died at 96 a decade ago. The farm remains in the family and is called a “Texas Century Farm” because it has been owned by the same family for over 100 years and has remained a working farm to this day. For me, the pear tree represents the strength and hard work of my ancestors who helped settle that area going back to the 1800s. The watercolor picture was my holiday card this year. My grandmother and mother are gone by the pear tree remains linking me to them.

  • “we are forever indelibly connected to the past and those who came before us. Our history is written on our faces, heard in our voices, felt in the china as we set the table, the ring as we put it on our fingers.”

    I love this line. I never knew my grandfather (a WWII and Korean War Pilot), but my grandmother recently sent me some of his letters, his patches, and some of his silk scarves. The way they haunt me is uncanny. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading more!

  • Your post touches on so many similar experiences. I wrote about not being able to look at Holocaust reminders, about a letter that was never delievered to my father and about not having a “witness”. I guess so many of us feel those universal emotions and ache for the same snippets of memory. Beautifully written.

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