I’ve been working on a family history off and on for the last year, more off than on. I’ll work feverishly on dates and names for a few days and then get distracted by experimenting with chalk paint or rearranging furniture. And sometimes life just calls me somewhere else, like to an unexpected event or an awesome opportunity.
But today has been like a gift. I’ve had time to read, paint, grade papers, edit parts of the history, and think. Although I’ve been trying to shut out the shootings in Las Vegas, they’re there. A friend said she thought she was having a nightmare when she woke up to the news. And then she knew the nightmare was real. There’s Puerto Rico too. And North Korea. There are crises and issues all across the globe.
I can’t think about that right now. Poverty, starvation, cruelty, madness, injustice, evil—it’s too much to think about today. Like Scarlett said, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
What does this have to do with writing a family history?
About a month ago, I felt inspired to write a few things that were happening in the world during the year my parents were born, 1929. From there, it seemed like a good idea to include some happenings during their childhood.
“What was the world like, especially the United States, the year John and Margie made their appearance? Knowing that events, people, and culture influence the belief system and psyche of individuals, I’m including a few happenings that took place during their early lives.
“When piecing together the following events, I pondered how much our parents’ lives and subsequently ours would have been different if we’d been born in another country or time. I shudder to imagine life without electricity, electronics, and indoor plumbing…or to have been born in North Korea or Iraq. To quote Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: ‘Seems like we’re just set down here and don’t nobody know why.’
“The United States population reached 120 million in 1929, the year my parents were born, she on April 5 and he on September 21. Today it’s 326,474,013. Among other notables born that year were Anne Frank, Barbara Walters, Martin Luther King, Jr., Arnold Palmer, and Dick Clark.
“Herbert Hoover was sworn in as president on March 4, and the Stock Market crashed on October 28. The Crash ushered in the Great Depression, an event so devastating that it affected nearly every country in the world. The first few years of their lives had to have been tough ones with possible long lasting effects including an inclination towards frugality.
“It wasn’t all gloom and doom. As has ever been true, some good things happened, too. In November of 1929, MoMA opened in NYC, and in 1930 frozen vegetables became the first frozen food to go on sale. Yippee! Actually the advent of convenience foods was a mixed blessing. While meal preparation was streamlined, many forgot how to shell beans or shuck corn, much less grow their produce.”
Like my parents, I too am a product of my culture, including the era in which I was born, race, ethnicity, religion, and social class. Sometimes it seems easier to see another person’s “culture” and forget that we each wear our own like a second skin. We might point to others and find their views and behavior quaint, crazy, old-fashioned, weird, childlike, and perhaps unsophisticated.
What I’m realizing more each day is that my life and yours would be much different than it is had we been born in Burundi, Syria, Puerto Rico, or in a different geographic area within America. Skin color, gender, education (often determined by gender), age (life expectancy in United States is 79.8 years 50.2 in Chad), and a host of other factors determine a person’s perspective and choices.
When I was a child, we didn’t have a television until the mid-1950’s and even then, news was limited, spotty, and “late.” Now we can learn of events happening around the world instantly. I wonder if my parents would have become more jaded or pessimistic had they been assaulted on all sides by so much information. I wonder if that’s happening to me.
I don’t have answers, just questions. Perhaps by writing the history, I can gain insight into my ancestors’ thinking and behavior–and into mine.