Living Memory


I have been trying for months to articulate my feelings about two little words in the English language that, when put next to each other, cause the breath to catch in my throat:  Living memory.

It all started in 2011 when I read that the last known combat survivor of World War I had died.  The article said that first-hand knowledge of what was known as “The Great War” had effectively passed out of living memory.  Knowledge, dead.  Reminiscence, dead.  It made me sad.

The sad feeling returned a few months ago as I watched a British documentary entitled, “James May On the Moon.”  In one of the piece’s narratives, May says, “Twelve men walked on the moon; only nine are still alive.  Soon the whole episode will pass from living memory.”  The whole idea of memories, anecdotes, musings dying out left me gutted – as if I’d just realized that I, myself, was a mortal.

I was eight years old when man first walked on the moon.  Like countless other parents that day, my father insisted that his kids watch the momentous event on television.  He understood the importance of the occasion; I did not.  He remembered when  transatlantic flight was a dodgy concept.  As I watched the documentary on the space program, it hit me. In the Twentieth Century incredible strides were made, horrific mistakes were made, two World Wars were fought.  My century was when time began speeding so fast that the entire world threatened to become a blur.

I can only hope that my children want to learn about this incredible era that brought them everything they take for granted now.- I can only hope that they develop a love for, rather than a disdain for, history.  I try giving them a glimpse once in awhile.  I must go about it the right way, catch them when they’re quiet and not “plugged in” to some gadget that distracts and numbs.  When history is made personal, it becomes far less tedious than when someone lectures about it at the head of a classroom.

Some tidbits I’ve told my children:

My mother, born in 1916, grew up in Texas when not everyone had cars.  Her stories were so vivid that when I visited Austin as a little girl, I was shocked to see highrises and paved roads.  My great-great aunt was born during the reign of Queen Victoria.  I remember seeing pictures of her – her long dress swept the floor, she held a parasol.  My natural curiosity made me want to learn more about her dress, her hairstyle, and the time she lived in.  Why did no one smile for the camera in those days?

My godmother, born in 1908, was born on a tenant farm. In the Tidewater region of Maryland and Virginia, people lived off the land and the water.  The lives of poor tenants were still heavily dependent on the wealthy landowners. Everyone traveled by horse and cart while paddle steamers and some tall ships still plied the river bringing goods from across the Chesapeake Bay.  Baltimore might as well have been the Emerald City to her.

My father, born in 1915,  told stories about his acquaintance with Orville Wright, one of the Wright Brothers (Orville died in 1948, my father in 1980.)  I asked the kids in a panic yesterday if they knew who the Wright Brothers were and was most gratified when they looked at me as if I was crazy.  “Duh,” one of them said.  Mr. Wright ignited my father’s passion for aviation, no doubt telling a few stories of his own.

The words “living memory” compel me to ensure that my history doesn’t fade into the mists of time.  My kids have not matured quite enough to grasp history’s importance or its connection to the lives they lead now.  Everything with the kids is about now, now, now.  Things appear on the horizon – news, ideas, technology – so fast now we can barely keep up.  Horse and buggies – are you serious?  Rotary phones, hand tools, rabbit ear antennaes…and no such things as iPods!


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