This is something that has been rattling around my brain since an interesting conversation I had with some relatives a while back. I was talking with some family members about how people in the family should be remembered after they die. I have one specific relative who died several years ago and who was not a particularly nice person. The stories we tell at certain gatherings don’t paint her in a good light, but they are very funny and enjoyable to tell. The question that came up during this particular conversation was if that was an unnecessarily negative thing to do.
On the one side was the belief that it didn’t add anything good to
the world to repeat unpleasant opinions about people, especially if they
are dead and they can’t defend themselves anymore. What gets handed
down to the next generation should be positive elements gleaned from
that life. Dwelling on the negative isn’t productive or kind and
doesn’t speak to our better nature or who we should aspire to be.
Although the people I was having this conversation with didn’t use the
word ‘forgiveness’ my impression of what they were saying seemed to
skirt along elements of that concept. There was a sense of being able
to let go, and not to allow oneself to be sullied or hindered by
continuing to clutch at unhappy images or ideas. I’m hoping I didn’t
misconstrue what they were trying to convey, but that’s what I got out
of it. There was a lot of emphasis on not handing down negative tales
of deceased relatives to any of our children because it was either
unfair or unseemly, but mostly not beneficial.
My take is different. I think it does
a disservice to people who did leave kind and loving legacies to lump
them in with people who didn’t. My great-grandmother Alma Borchert
sounded like a lovely person. By all accounts she was funny and caring
and an excellent cook. She was the relative people came to when they
were desperate or dying. She made them feel safe and loved. She made
amazing doughnuts. When people play that game of naming who they would
want to have dinner with out of anyone in history, I think of her. I
would like to have known her. I don’t think her reputation has been
whitewashed because I’ve heard enough tales of the other relatives who
surrounded her to know the descriptions of Alma Borchert are uniquely
glowing amid that bunch. I like telling stories of my great-grandmother
to my children as we cook recipes handed down from her. To imply that
all our deceased relatives were as nice in some kind of lie of omission
offends me. I believe if you treated people badly through either
ignorance or malice during your lifetime, that’s the legacy you signed
up for. Rather than feel I’m sparing my children from something ugly,
there is value in knowing there are lasting consequences to what you
do. When they die, how do they wish to be remembered? Like Alma
Borchert or some other relative who left anxiety and unhappiness in her
But in a larger sense I honestly think it’s dangerous. That may
sound overstated, but hear me out. The great truth about the evils
committed in the world is that the monsters look just like us.
If we aren’t willing to admit to flaws and ugliness in our own
families, what chance do we have against defending ourselves or our
children from it in the greater world? I think often of a radio story
involving interviews with different generations in Germany about WWII.
People of my generation all said they thought their grandparents helped
protect their Jewish neighbors. Their parents said no one discussed the
war when they were growing up. The grandparents, who lived through it,
had some pretty harsh anit-Semitic opinions that were in stark contrast
the the picture their grandchildren and painted for themselves. And I
apologize for succumbing to Godwin’s Law, but dehumanizing historical
figures like Hitler or Nazis in general makes us less likely to accept
that we run into people who under the right circumstances are capable of
those same horrifying extremes every day. It took ordinary people in
great numbers for the Holocaust to happen. Hitler alone would have just
been a failed artist and a lunatic if everyone had ignored him, but
there were many low level monsters to facilitate his madness, and those
low level monsters look like you and me.
I’m not saying my relative was a monster by any means. Far from it.
She was merely unpleasant, but I refuse to say she added joy and
sunshine to my life. If anything, the fact that her transgressions are
now merely amusing highlights how harmless her actions were in the
scheme of things. It won’t scar my children to know about them, so I
don’t see the point in hiding any of it. We should be able to look our
own family history in the eye and declare we can do better than some
members of it, even if that just means not being rude. I will share the
stories I know with my children when they are ready and they can take
them for what they are worth. Maybe they will trust my assessment of
how I remember things and take it at face value. Maybe they will use it
as evidence that their mom is a bitter person who saw things in a
negative light and dismiss it. That’s up to them. But for my part I
want to attempt to be honest. Implying our whole family as far back as
we can trace it was as nice as they want to imagine is a fairy tale.
There is fiction for that. My family history is real history. Life is
confusing enough without throwing in added distortion.
I had a friend back in college who was fun to argue with because his
views were far more conservative than mine, but he was a great guy and
really made me defend my beliefs. I appreciated that. But one late
night discussion stands out for me. I was telling him about all the
amazing women in history that I was just learning of for the first time,
and that I wished I’d known about earlier. Their stories were ones
that I could relate to in a way that I couldn’t to endless tales of
kings and generals and wars which was how history had always been
presented to me. My friend gave me a look and said, “So with limited
time in a history class you think the teacher should talk about Thomas
Jefferson and then make a point to throw in that his wife made a great
pot roast?” I was sort of stunned at the time and would love a crack at
that conversation again, but that particular friend keeps getting
deployed to Afghanistan and he has more important things on his plate to
do than hash up a twenty-year-old conversation with me.
In any case, as condescending as he was trying to make it sound, yes,
I would have liked to have heard about the pot roast. I would have
loved a history class as a kid that talked about what regular people
actually did. Not just how fiefdoms were operated or where borders were
drawn, but what people ate and wore. What did people sleep on? How
did women deal with their periods? What games did kids play? What kid
wouldn’t be curious about how people used the bathroom before there were
bathrooms? Of course we need the dates and the kings and the
battles…. But what does the average person gain by remembering the date
1066 compared to knowing how marriage worked back then?
people came away from the HBO film about President John Adams discussing
the scenes of political machinations, but I was left stunned by Abigail
trying to vaccinate her children from smallpox by letting the doctor
infect them with pus from a diseased man in a cart, or her left on her
own with all the kids for years, or the daughter’s mastectomy without
anesthesia. Those stories taught me more about now vs. then than
memorizing dates ever could. Without remembering people the dates mean
The best and most moving accounts of history come from real voices.
I’m glad teachers in high school made me learn the the major battles of
World War Two and certain key dates, but we’d have been better served by
supplementing that with The Good War by Studs Terkel. The accounts of
life during that war that have truly impacted me are those of my
grandparents. Not just of my grandfather’s time in the Navy, but my
grandmother’s struggles back home while he was gone. Those stories make
it real to me. History should feel real for it to be worth learning at
all, otherwise we are disconnected from it and it is merely trivia.
My husband’s accounts of his service in Iraq are a piece of a larger
story that will define our time for future generations. His perspective
in the context of this point in time is meaningful. The stories we
tell our own grandchildren one day of what our struggles were like will
shape what they know about us and themselves and the world.
isn’t just about dates and kings and wars. It’s about people. It’s
about us. We are history. For good or bad, we are helping to weave the
stories that people will learn from later. Let them at least be real.