Friday, April 4, 2014
April 4, 2014
My keyboard has been finicky lately, making it difficult to write the blog. Guess I shouldn't have spilled coffee on it. At least I don't use sugar, but a little milk has enough sugar in it to gum up the works. So it's been slow going, with the occasional freezeup. Having now made that Facebook-worthy disclosure, I proceed, a bit tardily, with this posting.
A couple of weeks ago I awoke from a dream in which I was in the presence of a person I gradually came to understand was my great grandmother. People were milling around, and she was talking to them and sometimes standing alone while I observed her and was given information about her by others or gradually came to understand things about her in that way that happens only in dreams. In that weird fashion I was becoming aware of her existence for the first time, and was supposed to be--indeed was--rather impressed with her accomplishments. She was a stout, matronly woman of indeterminate old age, rather tall as she stood there with her hair pulled back tightly from her face and gathered in a no-nonsense bun. She wore a full dress, not quite formal but very dignified, and resembled older women in prewar movies and New Yorker cartoons. Definitely a personage from another time. She was supposed to have been the first president of something or other, and one of the few women to have.....whatever the hell it was. That part was never quite clear, or the details were lost to me in the seconds after I woke up, but the overall sense I had was this was a forebear who did some remarkable things. And in the dream she was alive and in front of me.
Of course this woman wasn't really my great grandmother, but after the shell of the dream had broken and floated away with most of its contents, I was left thinking about great grandparents in general. Each of us has had precisely eight great grandparents, biologically speaking. In my case all of them died before I was born. All four of my grandparents were born in the 1880s, and their four sets of parents were all born before or during the Civil War. As with most of my contemporaries in age, we are fortunate if even one of our parents is still living, and our grandparents are long gone, and great grandparents are out of the question. Indeed comparatively few of us have any recollection of them. Perhaps, if our parents or grandparents were story tellers, we have some sketchy information about those great grandparents, such as their names and where they were born and what they did, and maybe a personal anecdote or two about them. Our great grandparents are for the most part the oldest relatives we might have had during our lifetimes, and probably the oldest our own parents had, given people's comparatively shorter lifespans half a century or more ago, and therefore the oldest people with which we have any degree of personal familiarity. We might have a few old and yellowing photos or even some tintypes of them, from the early years of photography.
In my own case I know the first and last names and maiden names of all eight of my great grandparents and where they were born. I have seen photos of seven or possibly eight of them, most taken the better part of a hundred years ago--rich yellow and ocher formal-sitting-type photographs such as were the norm in the those days. Two were born and died in Holland; one was born in Germany and one in Canada of a German father and both came to Michigan; one was born in Illinois and one in Missouri; and two lived their whole lives in southern New Jersey, descended from early settlers in New England and New York. That's pretty much the story of an average American of mixed northern European heritage.
The thing about great grandparents in general as opposed to great-great grandparents and earlier ancestors, is that they lived on after their deaths in story and pictures and maybe some family legends or anecdotes--either you knew them yourselves, or your parents could tell you about them, the way you might occasionally tell your children about your own grandparents. They were close enough to be real and yet remote enough in time to be semi-historical--the last solid link with the past before becoming merely a name on a family tree, relevant only to the curious (unless you're a Mormon looking to baptize them). We might know we had an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, but half the time what we think we know isn't really the case, because stories always get more interesting in the retelling, and there's no real link with people we actually knew. With great grandparents it's harder to fudge the reality of their existences, since they're too close to the present. Even if we knew them a little when we were kids, they were hopelessly old--caught and held forever, in photographs or in our memories, as too remote to be the affectionate and indulgent grandparents who might have loved and nurtured us, but too recently passed out of time to be full-fledged ancestors.
The bridge of progress and technology our great grandparents crossed was enormous. Chances are they were born before automobiles, electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, and air travel, to name just a few innovations that came into being during their lifetimes. Their livelihoods more than likely were of a different era, too, if not in their particularity then in the way they conducted them. Half of my great grandparents were farmers, one was a baker and one a sawmill operator. I don't think any of them made it to what we'd call secondary school, and that was entirely the norm for their era. The fact that they survived into adulthood, much less old age, was in itself a defiance of the odds. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century the most common cause of death was infectious diseases, followed by heart disease and strokes. Childbirth complications for mothers and babies were common. The life expectancy for someone born in 1860 was about 42 years. It was rare for someone of my great grandparents' era not to have had at least one sibling who died at birth or at a young age from things like influenza, measles, diphtheria, and typhoid fever. Antibiotics and vaccinations were rudimentary, injectible insulin didn't exist. Workplace accidents were frequent, as were unfortunate childhood events like falling into wells and dying in fires. Life was risky in the way it still is in the third world. Or people might live to be 35 and catch or develop something that today would be treatable, and be gone in a flash. The fact that cancer and high blood pressure and type II diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease are so common today speaks volumes. These are for the most part conditions that take decades to develop to the point where they are fatal. It is in all respects, in this country at least, a safer world, even with the real and imaginary dangers that blare out at us from all the news media outlets. In fact, the reason we hear so much about such dangers--plane crashes, murders, traffic fatalities, and so on--is that they are news, which is to say that they don't happen often enough to be taken for granted as part of the fabric of life in the advanced western world.
So often we unrealistically imagine the peace and quiet and comparative safety of a bygone and more rural age. But the days of our great grandparents were not safe. Dangerous in a less noisy way, perhaps, but dangerous nonetheless. In terms of what government or employers had to offer, they were not much removed from medieval times. No social security, no old-age health insurance, no minimum wage, no child labor laws, very little reliable medical treatment. Life was a bitch and then you died. Between your fortunate survival of birth and early childhood and your departure from this mortal coil you worked your ass off six or seven days a week, read the scriptures (if you could read), and were ruled by your religion. Many of that time also were born into slavery or peonage, or lived with the fear of impressment into military service, local vendettas, the oppression of a merciless employer and an equally merciless and indifferent government. As Thomas Hobbes put it in the 17th century, life for the majority of people without the protection of a benevolent sovereign (and how many of them have there been?) was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. This was barely beginning to be less the norm than the exception in the western world during the last half of the 19th century. And all of it was happening within the living memories of persons who were able to tell us, or our parents, about them. But they didn't do so, for the most part.
Some wit once said that nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but of course it is what it always has been--a form of ignorance, in the true sense that it deliberately ignores facts. For some this ignorance is probably therapeutic, for others it is merely self-delusion. Despite all of human misery, what generally survives in the telling are the sweeter and more glossy recollections in life, which is where the nostalgia comes in. I suppose that few who make it into comparative old age really enjoy dwelling on their own life's miseries, although the temptation, so often succumbed to, is to remind our descendants of how practically everything was done differently (and by implication better) when we were kids. That of course is because what we're remembering is not life as a whole, but childhood. Ironically, this gloss of nostalgia, which seeks the memories of the comforts of youth, is not how we see our great grandparents. We tend to view them as old, because if we knew them at all, or have pictures of them, chances are they were old at the time. No home movies survive of great grandparents frolicking down by the old fishing hole in some Huckleberry Finn-like way, or rolling hoops down the rutted dirt streets while avoiding horse turds, or spending shivering nighttime moments in the three-hole outhouse, or trudging out to the family graveyard with an infant's coffin. But all that happened. What we see is their mature old age, if they made it that far, and the serious looks on their faces--looks that said life is hard, by God, but we made it.
Most of us will someday be viewed that way by our own great grandchildren--as relics of another era, wearing out-of-date clothing and speaking in a hopelessly uncool way and sporting the comparatively grim looks that reflect a long life of comparative hardship: Having to get up to change one of the few channels on the TV; having to use only telephones that were attached to the wall by a cord; having to look things up in books; having to use typewriters; having only hot dogs and hamburgers to choose from at fast-food places, having to spend cash most of the time. Having measles, mumps, and chicken pox; having had or known someone our age who had polio; having no seatbelts, airbags, or child car seats; having segregated public facilities; having to watch only white guys play major league sports. The list, trivial and serious, goes on and on. We will be the last living--or recently dead--links to a dinosaur world of semi-history. We will, above all, be forever old.