Saturday, January 16, 2010

The changing of the guard

If you live long enough, you end up in this situation: you are now a member of the oldest living generation in your family. I lost my father, mother, and favorite aunt in 2009. My parents died within 5 weeks of each other.

There are a lot of things I could say, but here is one aspect particularly relevant to this place and time.

As a historian, I am struck by the fact that if I or my brothers or my cousins don't remember some aspect of family history, it is gone. (Of course, you don't have to be a historian to feel that way, but I am one.) Who else remembers that my stubborn grandfather, who tried to turn a promising idea, prefabricated concrete houses, into a business during the Depression, had to take backbreaking jobs like emptying a coal car with a handshovel just to get by? Or that he was crushed or maybe angry to hear that Will Rogers had died in a plane crash? Or that his wife, my grandmother, would go into the University of Cincinnati medical school and harass the faculty into giving serious consideration to admitting her talented daughter? Well, others do know things like this, but if we want to know more, we can no longer ask my father or one of his siblings. On my mother's side, to which I was much closer growing up, connections with my grandfather, grandmother and aunts and uncles are similarly fuzzier than they were nine months ago. Does anyone remember the piercing signal my mother was able to whistle when she was a kid? Back in the 1920s?

My parents, who came from modest working backgrounds, prospered slowly in the post-war world and enjoyed a comfortable quarter of a century of retirement until their health deteriorated. For most of that time they lived in a family-sized house surrounded by treasures; not for the most part extremely valuable things, fthough they had some very nice furniture, but beautiful pictures and artifacts with a lot of family meaning. A few years back they moved into a retirement village and had to winnow the collection down to what would fit into a 5 room cottage, but the best of the stuff, and the most significant, was all there. To some degree we were able to revisit our family past any time we visited.
When my parents died, all of this was scattered. My brothers and I and the younger generation took away what we could, with priority given to things with strong memories attached, but quite a bit had to be left behind for other people to claim. It was a real pang to realize that we would never be able to visit our family history collection again. And it made me reflect on how history is lost, and exceptionally, made and preserved.

One of the few benefits of going to two such funerals in short order is to realize how good a family I've had.

Image: A Muhlberger family treasure, a wooden bar brought back from Korea, being used by a grandchild in a way my parents would approve of.



Anonymous S. McClintock said...

My husband often says that in a generation or two, every person will be forgotten.

Excepts are when they have a holiday or a location named after them.

It also makes me sad that as our seniors get older their memories often go before they have been fully captured.

1:00 PM  
OpenID tenthmedieval said...

You saw this post of mine at the time, I think, but one of the things that lay behind it was talking with my mother, who has dug deep into my family's genealogy, talking about realising after some of her female relatives died that this information was going with them and she had missed her chance to ever find out any of this stuff. So she got going on the ones who were left. And of course what she found out has a better chance because someone wrote it out. Similarly, my father's draft autobiography may be a tissue of lies and half-truths, as my half-siblings insist, but it contains much of what he was willing to tell, and I've got it and it's safe for any future reader. The monks with the clich├ęs about the fallibility of the memory still have the right of it. So I recommend you blog or otherwise collect these recollections more, as you may well already be doing.

My consolations, also, for your losses of the last year. The division of the collection sounds heart-wrenching.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...


More than a decade ago I did get my parents to record an extensive talk on their lives. They did a good job, and that oral history is still around in audio and transcript.

I am grateful for your good words.

10:26 PM  

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