I have several friends who regularly forward those “Do you remember when…” e-mails full of words and phrases and items of daily life that are no longer used, or even recognized, such as rotary phones, manual typewriters, Palmer cursive writing, ruffled petticoats, and so on. They serve to remind those of us “of a certain age” that we are, indeed, getting on, and to suggest that perhaps our best years, “the good ole’ days,” are behind us.
Now I’ve never been one to wax nostalgic about many things, and I am certainly under no illusion that the good ole’ days were all that good, or good for all that many. I think the past for all of us, as well as the present, consists of good and bad, success and failure, tragedy and transcendence. No doubt the future will be the same, though if collectively we could remember the mistakes of the past, then maybe — just maybe — at least some of the future would be appreciably better for everyone. But I digress…
Older people tend to live in the past. They save everything, revive old memories through boxes of keepsakes and yellowed photographs, and live in houses furnished in the freezer of time. They tell you who they were, what they did, and how they prevailed — often with remarkable accuracy of dates and details, even as they are unable to remember what they had for lunch that day. In many ways, living in the past is safer: at least you know how things turned out. You have a story, with yourself as the main character, and maybe a moral to go with it. Even if the story didn’t end particularly well, it’s still your story and yours to tell however you wish. That’s important because, as I once heard writer Sondra Cisneros say, “… if you don’t tell it [your story], someone who doesn’t love you will tell it for you.” Oh my.
Politicians and popes aren’t the only ones who pine for a positive legacy. Everyone wants to be remembered well, to leave something significant behind, and to feel as though they’ve had an impact, however small, on their times. The current craze for genealogy research and DNA kits speak to the point: life is brief, but family and reputation endure. Some people leave a legacy of major contributions through philanthropy or humanitarian aid; some leave lasting political, cultural, or historic accomplishments; some leave lasting lessons for an immediate circle of lives they’ve touched, smaller rings of influence perhaps, but no less important. Few of us die without leaving anything behind, a modest financial nestegg perhaps, to heirs or to a cause, or maybe a simple treasure trove of dog-eared recipes or favorite family stories to our loved ones. Whatever the case and whatever the means, all people as they age, rich and poor, famous and ordinary, start to think about what they will leave behind and how they will be remembered by whomever is left to care.
The popular TV show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” dramatizes the highs and the lows of this quest for deciphering a legacy through the avenue of family research. Everyone wants to be related to kings and queens and statesmen and to find out that their ancestors were heroes, but alas, many discover they are related to scoundrels, slave owners, despots and thieves. This is not generally a happy revelation for anybody, but especially not for well-known people finding out dark family secrets in the full illumination of prime-time programming! The reactions of the celebrities to the facts about their ancestors are generally far more indicative of who these famous people really are than the facts they’ve uncovered.
And so it is for most of us, I think. We all, Americans especially, like to think that we are “self-made” men and women, unique and forward-thinking, industrious and inventive. Horatio Alger may have died in 1899, but his rags-to-riches stories are still being written every day in this Country by scores of people in pursuit of The American Dream. We do not, as a people, live in the past; we are always about the future, about more, bigger, better, faster, newer. Nor are we a very old nation. As nations go, we’re barely a pre-pubescent teen, now rebelling against the traditional values of our American family, now testing the limits of tolerance for our outbursts and bad behavior, now trying to decide who we want to be when we grow up. History is not always kind and it may not be destiny, but we repudiate it or, worse, revise it at our peril because, well — “those who don’t remember the past…”
So, here’s to Mother’s Day this weekend, to all the mothers and the oldsters among us who do remember the past and want to talk about it. Let them describe the way things were back in “the good ‘ole days,” and let them explain why they think they lived in “the best of times.” Listen to the stories, but look for the lesson.
And remember that the next time you lament that you’re turning into your Mother.