Tuesday, August 9, 2011

We Are History (Babble)

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 wake?

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?

Maybe other 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 almost nothing.

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. 

History 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.

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