As a student of history I appreciate old houses and like to read historical fiction and biographies. A few years ago I began researching my family history. As my parents age and have forgotten their past, I am trying to revive it. Last year we visited the house in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where my mother spent the early years of her life The house still stands, at the top of a hill, as does the home of her grandparents across town. The current occupants have no memory of my mother’s family, but the place endures. I will make more visits like this, to see the places where my ancestors lived and worked and raised families.
About a year ago we moved my parents into an assisted living facility. My father has had dementia for years, and now my mother’s health and memory is also failing. They need help dealing with the daily routines of life. They forget to take their medication, so caregivers hand it out. They have trouble washing, so the caregivers assist. I make doctor’s appointments, and arrange transportation for them because neither of them can drive anymore. My mother resists every attempt to take away additional layers of her adult self. In her mind she is still able to do these things. When my father retired he would not leave the town he had lived in for over fifty years. We all wanted them to move closer to one of us, before we had to face a situation like this one, but they were stubborn. After all, they had managed fine all their lives without any help.
Each time I visit my parents I bring back more boxes of the past. When they moved into the assisted living facility, they left many of their possessions behind. They weren’t exactly the hoarders you see on TV, but they have a lot of stuff. I have hand embroidered tablecloths and crocheted doilies. Photos are the most sought after items. My treasure is a photograph of my grandmother and her entire family taken around 1925. My grandmother saved things too. She saved her two son’s school records, and I have the few photos she had of my father’s older brother who tragically died at the beginning of first grade. These photos were safely stored, and over the years were probably forgotten.
When I read Marie Kondo’s book about decluttering, (see my earlier post on organizing) I recall a section about letting go of the items of the past. She urges us to hold on to the memories, but to get rid of the stuff. This is one part of her book I don’t agree with. I believe we have an obligation to keep our parent’s and grandparent’s memories alive, to remember who they were and what they did, their flaws as well as their talents. We do this through photos and letters and (cover your ears Marie Kondo) jewelry and furniture and other mementos. I am not endorsing a 21st century version of hoarding. By no means. When I am gone my children will not remember their great grandparents, but I hope they will save the embroidered tablecloth and the rhinestone jewelry and the family photos. As for the rest, I doubt they will want to cling to these leavings of the past as we do.
Why do we look fondly towards the past while we view the future with trepidation? The future is full of hope and possibility, whereas the past may hold painful memories. In the past are those poor choices of spouses and harsh words with children, and tactless conversations with bosses that got us in trouble. Hopefully we have learned from the past, though we do seem to repeat some of the same mistakes. While we don’t live in a Downton Abbey mini-series, like the Crawleys we try to maintain our lifestyle and look for love and build a better life for our children. Whether then or now, our aspirations are pretty similar.
In our 21st century world we can expect to live longer. We travel more and know more, thanks to air travel and the Internet. We are more likely than our ancestors to own a gun and have a college degree and to change jobs frequently. We also probably have more clothes and live in a larger house with more bathrooms. My mother and her three sisters grew up in a two bedroom house. Imagine that! No privacy, and no spending hours in that one bathroom with your siblings standing at the door waiting to get in. How did we get here? Does this larger life make us happier?
As we approach the new year I wonder what the future will hold. While we experience the bliss of cheap gas, I think about how we would adjust if it doubled tomorrow. Are we prepared? How will we cope with rising prices or scarcity? Will we put our best foot forward and make the required sacrifices like our grandparents or great grandparents did when the Great Depression began? As we recover from the mortgage crisis, will we watch our credit card debt? Will we save for a rainy day and resist spending money on things we want but don’t need? Will we stop polluting and decrease our carbon footprint in time to save our planet? These are questions our ancestors didn’t have to answer. Sure, they faced immense hardships and were asked to make the highest sacrifices, but they didn’t have to wonder if their world would still be there for their children. They faced the future the same way they faced every day, with the confidence that tomorrow would be better and that they could have a positive impact on that new day.
Some politicians have been telling us that things were better in the past. I suspect the past was better for some people, but not for everyone. My family was lucky: they didn’t lose any sons in either World War. The fifties weren’t a great time for women who had to get out of the workplace and back into the kitchen. The sixties? American cities were torn apart during the Civil Rights movement, while our boys were dying in Vietnam. Every age has its positives and negatives. Some enjoyed the fruits of prosperity while others were left out.
I think it’s easy to speak of the past with nostalgia. We all like to dream of living in another time, but we forget that the average life span was around 45 and that a cold could kill you. I’ll take antibiotics and the washing machine and the automobile, thank you. When I was a girl and you called an office, an actual human being answered the phone. That was better. In the days before word processing there was no spell check or cut and paste. You had to be able to write reasonably well. I’m not sure that was better, but it forced you to work and think more efficiently, and on your own. You couldn’t email your draft to mom and dad to edit.
Will 2016 be better than 2015? There are so many dangers facing us. The specter of hackers gaining access to our personal information is a real threat. Concerns about terrorism and gun violence are similarly real, though statistically probably less likely. Homelessness, unemployment, health concerns, and the rising oceans loom as potential crises. We worry about everything, things that are real and things that are monumentally unlikely to occur. Our grandparents had the same worries, but instead of sharing their lives on Facebook and Twitter, they had to go it alone or ask for the support of family and neighbors. As we edge ever closer to the new year I would like to propose that instead of taking that turn towards fear we make the choice to go in another direction. Our ancestors survived immense adversity. While we should remember the place we came from, and cherish it, let us turn bravely towards the future, and embrace it in all its uncertainty.
Happy New Year!