Wednesday, September 8, 2010

History is Personal

I first became interested in studying the past when my mom told me about our family history. She described some of the most significant changes and poignant events of the 20th century through her eyes and those of my grandparents. I think about things such as the Holocaust, immigration, changes in food consumption and preparation, labor, religion, healthcare, women's rights, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Beatles. Events such as these, both recent and historical, can be related through my family lens.

To me, history is not about strange faces and places. It is about my grandmother's heart disease and the "cure" that seems to have led to the leukemia that caused her death. Her generation seemed like it was moving far from a dark age when disease was an expected norm, but yet a simple cure for her was elusive. We have come far for the health care we have today. In a system that is far from perfect, we often see mistakes, but we forge ahead building on discoveries and experiments of the past.

History, to me, is also about my mom who was forced to return home after walking to school in pants during a snow storm. Girls at Theodore Roosevelt High were required to wear skirts, no matter the weather, with little concern about their physical and mental well-being. I am thankful that my daughter can wear the dresses she loves in elementary school, but will be able to permanently put on pants if she wants to when her girly-girl phase is over. I think of the Queen Elizabeths, the Rosie the Riveters, and the women burning bras who helped us reach our 21st century enlightenment on this issue.

In my mind, history is my grandparents' escape from hatred, to a new place where they could lay out a life that would lead to me. It is wrenching that this particular aspect of history repeats itself over and over again. If we know the past, we understand this truth. Recognizing perpetual intolerance can help us break it. History can help us recognize that humanity has struggled with fear and bigotry throughout time, make us better understand the role it plays in our own lives, and hopefully help us carefully think out and monitor our own views and actions.

As this Labor Day week continues, I think of the further struggles of my grandfather, who pressed clothes in New York City to feed his family. I laugh at how I hate to iron and the comforts I now have that make it unnecessary for me to do so if I don't really want to. I think about my grandmother picking out a live chicken at the urban butcher and waving it over her head until the neck snapped so she could prepare a meal. I am conscious of how far removed I am from my food, trying to plot out next year's vegetable garden so that I can taste something fresh and retain a bit of past pleasures. I think about my sister and me tossing cherry tomatoes from mom's garden into the air so that we could catch them in our mouths, a summer treat that can continue for generations if we make a little effort.

History to me is my parent's taste in music, which means something different to me than it once did because I now have a daughter of my own. I sit and listen to Taylor Swift with my child and then I turn on the Beatles. I've told her the stories of grandma sneaking into the Rock Stars' hotel to meet them. I know that my little girl's young excitement for a female singer will possibly one day turn into the same kind of frenzy for a young male musician that her grandma had for Paul McCartney. And while I love baroque music, I also love Nirvana -- I teach my daughter that it is okay and even preferable to have tastes spanning the ages and generations. It is okay for her to be a Beatles fan too.

I wonder about how I can play up the good in life and cut down on the bad for the future. I remember my mom's words about the killing of John F. Kennedy. I think about how she related that she will never forget where she was or exactly how the event played out. I relate it to my memory of when Ronald Reagan was shot. I think about other tragedies from my life. I remember my brother calling me to relate the news when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. I remember calling my mother-in-law and watching with her as the second plane hit. I remember feeling the need to run out and buy flags to hang from my windows...

When my mind needs to go farther back than my own lifetime or beyond the stories from recent generations that have been passed down through the family, I imagine myself in a specific time and place while thinking about how my role in life would differ under different circumstances. It doesn't matter when one is born, the fundamentals of being human don't change. Our emotional attachments and physical needs will always exist, though the ways we choose to deal with them may alter. As I approach a milestone birthday this month, I remember that I am not the only one to ever have been in this place where a change from a younger adult to an older (wiser?) one seems really marked and poignant. I wonder what pieces of my story and the life that surrounds me will be a focus for my ancestors. What aspects of history that occur over and over again or show measurable societal growth and change demonstrate themselves in my story. History is personal. It is about me. It is about my loved ones. It is about the shared humanity of us all.
Here are positive thoughts for myself during this milestone month:

Never forget, but let there be healing.
Don't be afraid to grow up, but stay young at heart.
Treasure your heritage and treat it appropriately.


  1. Wow. I love this and will share it on Facebook. Thanks, Dave

  2. I think mom wants me to clarify that grandma didn't actually wave the chicken over her head. Rather, she brought the animal to the "'chechet,' a rabbi who said a prayer and then cut the chicken's throat quickly so that it would not suffer." I supposed mom's correction demonstrates the importance of an accurate oral history!

  3. thanks Dave. I'm glad you enjoyed it