Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Memories of Others Are the Memories of Ourselves.

At lunchtime today it occurred to me to consider the immense amount of information about others that slips away through time and reservations. My dining companions and I discussed the lives of our forebears. Even though I know both of them extremely well, I discovered that there are formative experiences from their lives that I am largely oblivious of. Much of their own personal stories have been influenced by interactions with people who are long gone. One of my companions today was actually put into an orphanage as a young child, for a period of several years. She claims to have distinct memories from her time there, despite the conventional wisdom that she should have been too young to remember much of anything.

We do well to remember that we know little about those closest to us, even though it seems that we can read them like a book. Have you ever sat down and talked about the people from which you descend? Genealogical research seems to have become immensely popular over the last generation, due to the radical improvements in information technology. For many it is quite easy to find the names of ancestors, the dates of their births and deaths, and maybe their primary occupations. But while a genealogy can be intriguing with its suggestion of continuity, it is merely the barest skeleton of your own personal history. What do you really know about any of those people? Maybe you have some dim memories of those most recently passed. For those who died long before you were born, you are mostly reliant on the stories of others. How much of this material have you pursued with your oldest living friends and relatives? Conversely, how much have you shared with the youngest members of your family?

It seems tragic that so much history should be lost. The reality of the situation is that most people don't really take the time to listen when they are young. Try to share an anecdote with a teenager and see how much attention you can command. If you are lucky they will attend to your words for a couple of minutes before their eyes glaze over, they shrug their shoulders, and slip off for another round of whatever shoot-em-up video game is in fashion now. The chances of them retaining even a quarter of what you say is unlikely. And as a result the tale of another's existence dies right there. We'd like to believe that there is a certain immortality through living in the memories of our descendents- in both those of blood and those of circumstance. Hopefully the storytellers live long enough to tell the stories to people old enough to care.

Certainly there are ways around this problem. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a famous ancestor. If that's the case, a large portion of your family history will have been recorded. Alternatively, you might be fortunate enough to be descended from an obsessive-compulsive recorder of events. Do you know if any of your distant relatives kept a journal or diary? There may also be some elderly living relative that is lucid enough to answer questions about their own lives, as well as those of other family members that theylived among. Increasingly too, there are large oral history projects that have been empowered by the increasingly limitless capabilities of modern information storage technology. A bit of your own history might be documented already.

But perhaps you have none of these advantages. That doesn't mean that you have to compound the loss of a collective identity built upon the lives of many of your precedents. We always have the opportunity to document our own lives, and those of the people that surround us. It may seem intrusive to ask particularly sensitive questions about our family members' pasts. There are messy divorces and personal scandals that take an emotional toll on those that try to recount them. You should be prepared to meet resistance in eliciting these tales of pain and tragedy. Yet over time these events inform the lives of those involved. They make us who we are, along with the gifts we receive and the achievements we attain. Ultimately there is a range of experiences that we can all relate to, and the collections of specific details form a larger picture that resonate with us throughout time. Maybe we are too burdened with the demands of our immediate lives to be much concerned with our pasts. But if that is the case then we strike out half-blindly, with no real understanding of the circumstances and decisions that have formed the present.


Anonymous jefg said...

These are some of the concepts I've been exploring for years. MY one regret is not videotaping my Mom telling me some of the stories from her past. Knowing it was a great idea, I nevertheless waited too long. Perhaps that was my way of thinking she'd always be around.

Written records of births, deaths and residences are fine (and that's what I do), but oral histories are so much more personal. It's amazing to me that some older folks are able to capture minute details about something from 60, 70 and 80 years ago, and I can't remember the name of someone I was introduced to five minutes ago. However, I can find my car in a mall parking lot, so I guess I'm OK.

Oh, and no, no famous people in the family. Still looking for one.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I think it's great that you ahve done the structural work that underpins an understanding of your ancestry.

Do you remember a lot of what your mom told you? Perhaps you can find the time to write some of that down. Otherwise it's going to be lost with you. And what about you? Can you remember some of those long ago hazy details. I bet you could if you tried.

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Susan Kitchens said...

Excellent post. I got to know my grandfather during his 90s, mostly. (I lived on one coast, he on the other) He had the amazing fortune to live through the entire 20th century. The good thing about that is that I had time to ougrow my "Naaah, this isn't interesting to me" phase and to sit down with him and listen to his stories.

I spent a few weeks with him in a cold January 7 years ago (he was 99), and he told me story after story while the tape recorder rolled. I converted those tapes to audio CD... then sought to learn how better to use available tools to capture stories of family members. My website is devoted to my learning process; I'm blogging your post today. :)

12:42 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for the response! It's great that you had the foresight to do that while your grandfather was around. And technological savvy too!

6:02 PM  

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