Living with History – What Are Your Roots?

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:

“I grew up in Great Neck, New York, moved to Sherman Oaks, California at 15, college in San Diego, married my husband at 27. Two kids by 30. Worked as a retail buyer and manager, but opted to stay at home and raise my kids. Now I’m a blogger and about to turn 50.

If only it were 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 – sometimes to our detriment – calling us to a time with music, or books, or fashion, or a face. A time before this one transitions to something more alluring, but the present is always filled with the day to day, the difficulties and struggles. Only in recollection can we see how particularly beautiful a moment was.

I have a ninety-seven year old grandmother. All of her history is now in her heart and mind, as everyone she knew when she was young has died, leaving her to carry the stories of her husband, her family, her parents and brothers and sisters, her friends, acquaintances. All of them gone. I listen to her tell her stories over and over, knowing that she is sharing them so I will remember, telling them to keep them here with her. She gave me a packet of letters her father had written, letters she 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 youthful voice of my 23 year old 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 treasures 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 herself, to those she loved so much.

History is who we are. We can change the present, dream about the future, but 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. We are human because we have a history.

Letter from my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother, 1935

Originally published Jan. 7, 2012