Thursday, July 18, 2002

In defense of the past

I debated whether to rain on this parade, and decided someone had to take the unpopular job of speaking up for times long ago. They mean something more profound than stereotypes.

You might say I dearly love the past. Let me admit my bias: a fun day for me involves going to the State library to look at microfilmed census records from 150 years ago, or perhaps visiting a tiny, long-forgotten, overgrown cemetery in the woods to record the names on the weathered stones. It was my first academic interest, discovered second semester of freshman year, sneakily replacing pre-law, and so I have an undergraduate degree in U.S. History and began a career as an educator. Plus, I volunteer for a town museum, a private house museum, a cemetery board and a town historical society. The book which induced me to take a risk and waltz out of the world of educational administration to the world of freelance is a memoir about my grandmother, Mimmie, that I have been working on since 1996.

I'm not suggesting it was somehow "better" then, and I don't hate the times we are in now. I'm optimistic, but not romantic. I take the long view, and think of it all as "life," all worth celebrating. If that's nostalgia, so be it. Mimmie's nearly 89 years on this planet were sometimes hard, but they were also often happy. She left actualized. She taught me some simple things, and some profound. I'm the first to admit to have been a big beneficiary of the increased opportunities available to women. I have kept my own name, I have a "modern" husband, and I am childfree (and by 40 people have stopped asking questions about it for a few years). I haven't had to struggle with my family over these things. Mimmie finished at the one-room school at eighth grade and that was all she wrote in the formal education arena. (But then so did my grandfather.)

Of course I enjoy many modern conveniences (electricity, computers, refrigerators), but there are a few that I choose not to embrace (convenience foods; chemical pesticides and fertilizers; instant messenger, driving). And I certainly don't like those silly email messages (on any subject) that beg to be forwarded. Years and years and years ago - heavens! It must have been the real early ‘90s -- did we have indoor plumbing then? -- when email was new to me, I dutifully opened every one, and scanned them for the two or three quips that brought a brief smile to my face. All of my email buddies got wise to it back in the golden oldie days of Windows ‘95, so I rarely get a forwarded spam now.

I wrote that I discovered history as a college freshman, but the reality is that I've always been charmed by it. In my small hometown there is a large reservoir, that supplies water to New York City. It was built starting in 1909. Several hamlets in two towns were relocated, and the valley flooded. From the dividing weir that crosses the Reservoir, it is impossible to look down at the water, at the panorama framed by the Catskill Mountains, and not to think about the rural people who lived in those lost villages, and not to wonder about the merits and demerits of technology's advance through that valley to bring water to thirsty urban residents 100 miles to the south. Those folks mattered. They persevered. Sometimes they even laughed.


Recently I have had the privilege of helping to sort through an ordinary family's collection from several lifetimes. Yes, people died because of the lack of antibiotics. Yes, aren't those drugs a marvel? But the truth is, death is a reality, a very sad part of life, even for those of us in modern society.

Judging from the bottles we found, they were obsessed with a product called Nujol for constipation (my guess is that without it they would avoid making trips to the outhouse at all costs). Sure, there were illiterate people; but in my census research I've been surprised to discover it was less than my expectation. In education we have some literacy issues of a different sort now - two are innumeracy and differential access to computer technology.

Plain, everyday, uneducated, working class people also read books and actually played music themselves (and they weren't even professional musicians!) - they wrote letters and talked and told stories to each other. They lived real lives, instead of watching people on television live artificial ones.

Now, no question the Internet has advanced communication. I have read somewhere that email has resurrected the lost art of letter writing -- for that alone it is a good thing. The voices of the past tell me so.

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