Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Generations, History, and 90th Birthdays

Sandy, Mom, me, Grandma, Great-Grandma

"Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted." --Mary McCarthy, On the Contrary

My mom turned 90 this week, and as we gathered to celebrate--son/son-in-law, daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren--we tried to peek through the keyhole of the past to what interesting history those 90 years carried with them. We pulled out photos taken through nine decades. We laughed over fashion styles. We wondered who looked like who then and now.

A favorite picture for the four generations present was this one of four generations past. At the time the photo was taken, my sister Sandy and I were two oldest of a number of great-grandchildren. Mom is the one in the futuristic (or retro depending on your point of view) sunglasses. Doesn't she look like fun?

Fun, however, is relative and not always the best choice of words when describing a long life. There are times of great pain and loss (including that of a beloved child, Sandy), disappointment, unfulfilled dreams. But there are also long-term values and legacies to pass on--things like commitment, dedication, the lighter moments (like fancy sunglasses), love, and hope.

A peek into the history of others is often full of those things, too.

For example, I've been reading a small little book entitled, Kiss the Children For Father, Letters from a Civil War Prisoner at Fort Pickens. Lucius Merritt was a confederate civilian held political prisoner in Pensacola, Florida during the Civil War. Family members in subsequent generations were not only able to save and pass down the letters he wrote during that time, but a descendent, Merrit Nickinson, compiled them for others to read. Talk about history! This book's a treasure.

In one letter, addressed to his wife and dated November 14, 1862, he wrote: "Dear Wife, It is hard for me to pourtray (sic) my feelings--when I saw you and our children fading away in the distance on the steamer Sykes we have been parted so little during our ten years marriage-that our separation is much more painful now. But Providence orders all things for the best and we can extract from adversity the essence of good."

"...extract from adversity the essence of good..." I haven't finished Kiss the Children yet, so it remains to be seen if Lucius carried that sentiment throughout the rest of his life, but I'm going to guess he did. A pretty special legacy to pass along to future generations, wouldn't you agree?

More thoughts on the subject of history:

"Professor Johnston often said that if you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree." --Michael Crichton, Timeline

"History is a novel for which the people is the author." --Alfred de Vigny

"History is a symphony of echoes heard and unheard. It is a poem with events as verses."--Charles Angoff

"Hope is the other side of history." --Marcia Cavell

And, for my mom and all the other beautiful ladies who've shared such loving and giving lives:

"History is herstory, too." --Author Unknown

Are you a history buff? Did you like history in school? Do you enjoy reading history, writing about it? Do you celebrate longevity, cherish and record the stories of those in your family who have passed through decades of history themselves?

p.s. we also threw a "card shower" for Mom. To date she has received 56 cards. Now that is fun!


  1. I do love history, though I rarely read it (unless it happens to be YA, and even then only if it fits with what I'm writing at the moment). I enjoy historical movies and love to visit historical places. And my family actually has a written history on one side, a memoir written by my sister for my grandmother's 90th birthday. In my diversity class, we talk a lot about family histories, too.

    But your question made me think... Do I write history? I think I do. It's just not a history that lives anywhere outside my head - yet. My characters are created, complete with whatever history I give them. So, yes, I write history.

  2. Happy birthday to your mother! I have had some great one-on-one sessions with my dad, talking about his memories of growing up in a small southern Missouri (or Missour-a as he says) town. I feel like it's important that I'm learning his history, his stories, and I can sense the nostalgia he has for that time in his life. He's done a project with his cousin, researching family documents and hunting down our history. They say that the more your children know about their parents and grandparents (and great-grandparents), the better their sense of place in the world and the better their emotional health. With the world ever-changing with technology, etc., and with families increasingly living far apart from each other instead of remaining a supportive single unit, I feel like it's important to have those conversations with our parents while we can. And, likewise, to have those conversations with our children/nieces/nephews. Thanks for the great and heartfelt post :)

  3. Peggy, great take on writing history--the fact that a (fiction) writer creates the history of her characters in order to understand them, know where they're coming from. Thanks--appreciate you making this point :-) And I bet the history of your grandmother is a great read, that's the kind of history I love getting into. I think that's why I'm drawn to historical fiction--though I know that's not the most popular genre nowadays--trying to experience lives and relationships lived in different eras, exploring similarities and differences and how they were challenged, how they dealt with those challenges. I love the puzzle of it all...

    Jess, I love your point about children who know more about their parents and grandparents have a better sense of place in the world/emotional health. I hadn't thought about it that way. I do know that I loved talking to my dad, too, about his earlier life and that of his parents. I've kept notes of stories he told. They did seem to help me understand his past better, maybe my own? Thank you for sharing. Glad to hear how these things are important to others, too... :-)