Monday, October 10, 2011


My grandfather is dying. His mother is turning 100 next month. Only in the last couple of years, her memory started to go and was put in a nursing home. I was thinking about all of this last night, and how when someone lives to be 100 and their mind slips away, it's not the same kind of mourning.

I was talking to my dad about how I've been watching that Prohibition documentary on PBS, and while I watch, I feel like I can see my great-grandmother in the old footage. She would have been a teenager during the 20s. It occurred to me that because of her, the 1920s feels like as far back in time as I can really get a hold of. The 30s, 40s, and 50s, too, I wasn't alive of course, but I can imagine what they must have been like because I can close my eyes and see myself as a little kid at a family clambake, with all the old people around, I can hear their Ohio accents, and the sound of my grandfather playing the organ. I can see the decor in their houses, the bowl of soft mints, the offered bowl of cheap pretzels. I can imagine the joking around. And the alcohol. It might have been the 1980s, it might have been Florida instead of Ohio, but I think those dim memories probably had the same atmosphere as what I see in old pictures.

I remember it, but it's gone now. Gatherings aren't the same. They don't happen as often, and when they do, the mood isn't the same. The old people of my childhood have gone, and now my grandparents, who were not really that old when I was born, are now the old people. I was never that close to my dad's parents or my great-grandmother, really, not enough to have a ton of personal memories of them, but I do feel really sad for the whole atmosphere of their lives passing on.

When you're a kid you take it for granted, you have no sense of history. You don't ask questions, so you only get family stories if someone volunteers them. I think I'll always wish I knew more about my relatives, as they go. But a part of me still knows a time and place I never lived through, because it swirled around me when I was just a little girl.

But, I miss it.


  1. Thank you. You've touched on something I've felt a lot. I've grown estranged from my family--in time and culture. And all the old ones are gone, and it's almost as if they were somehow the glue keeping the rest of us together.

  2. When I was a tiny girl I used to quiz my great-grandfather about what it was like before cars. I used to love to hear about his childhood, with all the horses. For me the 1880s are within reach.

    I was born in the early sixties and was telling my middle son about how my best friend was a Japanese American boy when I first started elementary school. I was constantly lectured by people for whom WWII was less than twenty years ago, who accused me of consorting with the enemy and called us both terrible names that I didn't really understand.

    Now to my kids WWII is as far away as my Great-grandfather's youth.

  3. Nerine, I think that's true. My family has new glue-y spots now, I will say, but some relatives die and others drift away (and sometimes they feud!) and the shape of things really changes, and that's sad. The family has definitely shrunk.

    Georgiana, that's fascinating. My great-grandmother didn't really grow up with cars, I'm told. I guess even in the 20s they weren't common in her circle. She never did learn to drive. (Then again, neither have I, but I'm weird...) But how sad about the Japanese-American boy. Sometimes it amazes me how far we come so quickly. I remember having my childhood mind BLOWN...and obviously not in a good way...when I found out that when my mom was little black people had to use separate water fountains, etc., in Florida, and obviously the rest of the south...I remember reading a book about the Civil Rights movement to tatters because I just couldn't believe things like that could happen so recently. Gay rights has come immensely far just in my lifetime. On the other hand, lingering anger and racism over wars and conflicts can last so very very long...crazy-long when you study history and see how things that happened hundreds of years ago can be traced to attitudes today.

    Aaaaand that was a tangent...

  4. I love the history of families. My family is very large, but my grandparents have been gone for 25 years, so it's been my dad's generation that has kept us all together.

    This year we lost the last of our "elders". No more great aunts and uncles. Now my dad's generation are the "elders", in their 50s and early 60s. I never met my grandmother, but I never really understood how much I lost by not knowing her until I had my own son, and I got to see how close he is with his grandparents. I wonder what my grandmother would have told me about her life, and what she would think of the family she created. We are a pretty odd bunch.

  5. I love the history of families too. I feel lucky that I was the first baby of my generation. My grandparents were all young and I got to know to at least a small extent many of my great-grandparents. My youngest sister is having a totally different experience of the family, I think, although it's probably no worse, just different.

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  7. Yes, you've really put your finger on it! When you know someone, their time period is still within reach. My grandpa (not still living, of course) was born in 1895 and lived to be 95. So pioneer farming of the 1800s is still pretty much a real time period for me. (Um--but seeing as how school was out last week in SE Idaho for potato harvest, I think I'm still living in those times a bit. :) My dad was drafted into WWII right out of high school, so likewise, that time period is one I "know." The strangest stretch to me in my own family history, though, is the fact that my Czech great-grandparents had an arranged marriage (normal for that time/place), and--he was born before serfdom was officially ended in the Austrian empire. ! As it appears most of my ancestors there were serfs until quite modern times, it's a strange feeling for me, and something I definitely sensed when I visited Vienna. I imagine it would be similar for an American of slave descent visiting the plantation their family once worked on.