Like all parents my parents made a deep impression on me growing up- they still do. My parents always had a great appreciation for the past and for those that came before. To enter a room where an adult was and to not address them or recognize them was unthinkable to them. My siblings and I were raised in this manner. My parents were not oppressive in their rules but they certainly had some non-negotiables. As a result of this mindset regarding the past, I don’t ever recall my parents getting overly worked up about contemporary news events and they certainly never saw their experiences (mine and my siblings too!) as exceedingly unique in the grand scheme of things. There was always someone that came before and most assuredly always someone that had to deal with a situation far, far worse. Pity parties were pretty much non-existent in my childhood. I can remember when my parents dropped me off at college and the moment came where they were to say good-bye, my dad seeing that I was anxious and a little emotional said “hey, you got it easy, a generation ago people were saying good-bye and heading over to Vietnam literally never knowing if they would see their loved ones again.” Talk about putting things into perspective- my homesickness never seemed that bad.
As a high school social studies teacher I always try to connect yesterday to today- I think most social studies teachers do, kind of the bare minimum along with pushing content. So just the other day in my classroom during an opening lesson on the decade of the 1920s I had students do an activity where they would be comparing 1920s America to America today. The lesson was set up with a series of statements based on images that I presented from the 1920s where students had to agree or disagree. These images ran the gamut and included the presidents, flappers, items on prohibition, Charlie Chaplin, etc. In one statement students had to agree or disagree on whether or not the youth of America rebel against parents and authorities. I wanted students to connect the images of the 1920s to these statements which they did- many said in the follow-up discussion that the 1920s saw a change in the attitude of women- the flapper with bobbed hair, going out to night to clubs with her girlfriends or the various new dance crazes attributed to the emergence of jazz. Both examples certainly fall under the category of rebellion. It became apparent too that the general consensus among my students was that every new generation of youth has a good bit of rebelliousness- its good and healthy. I agreed. My hope was that students therefore began to appreciate and recognize the fact that although the 1920s was a long time ago kids are kids be it in 1920 or 2017. As much as things change they also very much stay the same.
To further reinforce this point I also offered up the notion that in the not too distant future, when you (students) are a little older and on your own, out from under your parent’s roof there will be a moment when you will catch yourself by saying something that comes directly from your parents. It literally will be your parents channeling through you and for a brief second you will quietly say to yourself- oh God, I’ve turned into my parents. . .it’s an everything-stops-around-you-moment. For me these moments are never particularly grand, I’m never offering up a remarkable kernel of wisdom to someone but rather something very mundane like “can we turn off the lights in rooms when no one is in them, we’re not the electric company!” Kids will be kids and parents will be parents.
The past was always important and relevant to my parents, especially my dad. For him it was something that had to be dealt with in some way shape or form. It couldn’t be ignored, and needed to be given its proper due. He believed that in order to deal with life and all of its unpredictability one needed to factor in the past. And because of this he loved all things history and appreciated its lessons.
I can remember as a kid coming in after playing backyard football on Saturday afternoons plopping myself down on the couch to join my dad to watch all sorts of history-based films such as The Searchers, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, Ivan Ho, Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, George C. Scott in Patton. By the way not to digress but Judah Ben-Hur was the Forrest Gump of the ancient world- the guy knew everybody and did everything! Anyways, it was this time on the couch where I first was drawn to history. The history bug got me early on in my life because of my father. I am thankful for that. Studying history developed critical thinking skills for my father and consequently he encouraged that in all of us. It is interesting too because my dad professionally went into sales and marketing, having nothing to do with the field of history or his liberal arts background. Yet he always felt that his liberal arts education was an asset in the business world because it taught him to think critically and to properly articulate his viewpoints in both spoken and written word.
One of the many implied lessons that I gained from my parents was that understanding history is more about listening than about speaking, it is about having a measure of humility and modesty surrounding one’s current circumstance because the mere practice of looking back on the past involves an accepted worth on what it has to offer. History allows us to not always try and reinvent the wheel. Arrogance and hubris disproportionately afflict those that only look forward, giving cursory glances to history’s lessons.
Dementia forced my father and all of us in our family to live in the moment. Memory loss does that. Dementia therefore reeks havoc on history.
Live in the moment. . .live in the moment. . .certainly a romantic notion to this phrase that is often repeated- albeit under a different context. And although I do appreciate its meaning under that context my experiences with my father’s dementia offered another perspective to the phrase. Dementia makes you keenly and brutally aware of how much of life is tied up in sharing memories and of times past, i.e. history. A conscious connectedness therefore will eventually be lost because sharing no longer becomes possible between one afflicted with dementia and those who are not. Death of course ends all immediate connectedness, however, with dementia the story and script are already written. Everyone knows the ending, there is no cure.
Yet with me one surprise did remain. I was surprised how dependent my memory of my father was based on conversation. It is true with all relationships. Seems obvious when you stop and think about it but for me this realization did not fully materialize until it was kind of too late.
You see conversations with my dad inevitably became one way due to the debilitating nature of the disease, if there was conversation it usually involved jumping from one non sequitur to another until even that ceased. What was once effortless in thought and speech became tireless work, and you unfortunately are forced to shift away from a collective memory/narrative created by way of conversation. For me this was difficult because I realized our conversations provided a history, and because conversations were no longer possible- time was up and our history now becomes perilous. I sometimes had and still have moments where I question the details about our past experiences and there is nowhere for me to turn. After all, I am the gatekeeper of our history- me alone. Sobering. Sobering because you want get those memories right all the time. It’s a need on par with breathing for me.
I therefore make it a point to speak and write about my father all the time- to my mom, my siblings, my wife, my kids, my friends not because I haven’t been able to accept his death or been able to move on with life but because if I do not speak about our history it would fade away. Like all oral traditions. My father’s death provided me with a deeply personal reason on why history is important. I can’t get away from it even if I want to!