Mayflies

It is one of the tragedies of the human race to both be able to imagine and dream of forever and to last such a short time.

Also that we can’t be sure of what we remember/read about/imagine so that the only thing we can be sure of is the present.

I’m listening to a series of lectures on ancient Greece, and I’ve — of course — written stories set at various times in the past.  And let me tell you, when you’re researching for an historic novel you treat a generation like a rounding error. If you can’t find anything on Louis XIII’s time you go with Louis XIV and then carefully figure out what was built in the last fifty years or so, and wen.  Building by building and street by street.

Of course, each of these things might be wrong, but if you’re writing about the distant past, no one can tell you “Hey, dummy, you got that wrong” even if it made all sorts of difference to the people at the time.

Worse, even people writing at that time might have got it wrong.  I’m always puzzled, for instance, by the fact that my kids can’t seem to remember which people are my siblings and which are my cousins.

Now, I do realize they’re not raised near my family and there’s a culture barrier and “first cousin” in Portugal “feels” (More like “tastes”) to the emotional palate a lot like siblings here.  But all the same, it’s not like I haven’t told them, or like I have a big and complicated birth family.  Well, not the nuclear family.  The extended family has odd tendrils and star-shaped protrusions.

But you know,w hen we get accounts of the past we might not be aware of all of this stuff, all the little ramifications and implications, or how close people were to their subject matter.

And then — while we live both in an exceptionally literate and exceptionally fast changing time — there is the fact that the ideas my kids have of my childhood are…. bizarre.

Perhaps it is impossible to bridge the generations.  I heard mom’s stories of her childhood, but I certainly can’t imagine having something like 3/4 of my age-cohort die, all the way into my teens.  I was born after antibiotics, and while 3/4 of my generation did die (smallpox) it was around the time I turned 3, and I don’t remember any of the dead, not even my cousin my age.

My only memory of Dulce is that we used to go to the children’s cemetery to light candles for her every day of the faithful until I was ten or so (graves are leased and they turn over — bones put in the ossuarium — at some interval, and I have a vague idea children’s graves turn over faster.)

Anyway, I can’t imagine my mother’s childhood where you made your dolls annually and staged funerals for them at the end of the period, because this made sense to you, so it’s probably not strange that my kids, who come from a generation soaked in entertainment and means of absorbing story wouldn’t understand the boredom, the strange …. slowness of my childhood.  How books got read and re-read and re-read over and over again, because there was nothing else to do, not because you really liked them. Or how you might teach yourself some intricate craft because it’s summer and you’re bored out of your gourd.

I wonder if the current generation will be as creative, and as detailed in their crafts.  Sure, they have means of learning we never had.  Youtube videos and instructions, and….  BUT — as I’ve learned — it’s all too easy to flit from watching or receiving or even reading information, and never learn to do anything.

Or is this only such a beguiling temptation to me and others like me because we went through the years — decades! of boredom?

I mean, it’s not like I couldn’t waste time like a champion, even then. I spent a considerable portion of the nineties reading old gothic romances. Not out of any interest, but they were in the free shelves outside used bookstores, and they were completely painless and well, yes, useless….

And let’s not talk about the months when the kids were tiny and I read and re-read Disney comics like my life depended on it.  (And no, unlike what other writers have said, I don’t use them for plotting structure, not even the old, good ones.)

But the thing is we don’t know. It’s not given to us to know what the past really was like, what, for instance, using chamber pots and going to an outhouse did to the fabric of every day life.  Heck, I grew up in a house with an outdoor bathroom and yes, chamberpots until I was six, and I can barely remember what it was like, and don’t think I could endure to live through it again, now I’m used to ensuite bathrooms. Heck, even having two bedrooms for a whole 1800sq ft. house, like my parents’ house, seems like a hardship now.  I mean, it’s okay on vacation, but with six people in the house, it gets downright cozy.

And yet, we tend to buy older houses, and I know it was not unusual to have one bathroom for a family of six or eight.

How many of you have gone over an early fifties house, to buy, because it’s two of you and with a little work, it will be great, and realize people raised whole families there, at a time when it wasn’t unusual to have three or four kids? Or that the people who lived there were white collar workers and prosperous?

What did it do to family life that you all lived in each other’s pockets all the time. It seems horrible to us, but they surely didn’t experience it that way, or don’t remember it that way, or didn’t write it down that way?

Heck that first “house” I talked about was a shotgun apartment with one bedroom cut out of grandma’s house.  Long and skinny kitchen, kind of fat hallway with a jog large enough for a single bed, a bedroom without windows, cut in the middle, and a living room where the light came via glass in the door.

I think — it’s hard to remember — I first went next door to sleep with my (14 years older female) cousin.  But I remember just before we moved I’d taken over my brother’s bed in the hallway for about a year.  And my brother was sleeping in a pull out couch in the living room.

I don’t remember feeling particularly cramped or deprived.  I suspect there are families in large cities with expensive real estate living like that today, and they’re not particularly poor.

But even I can’t imagine my own circumstances.

So I probably should forgive books set in the regency or Victorian age where the writers, having read about “dark satanic mills” or the like make it a big plot point about how maids would do anything to stay employed as maids and not “have to go” to the factories.

I guess I can hold it against them a little, though.  Perhaps it’s too much to ask that they look over what happened in the very recent past when China and India industrialized, and how many people left “service” and the idyllic countryside to flock to factories with conditions that TO US seem appalling.

OTOH perhaps they should have done what I do and read biographies of people who were maids in their youths (however badly remembered that might be) and realize how unremitting and backbreaking the work as a maid was. Without modern conveniences, it wasn’t all about standing around in pretty frilly aprons.  And as for the factories, if they read books written by people at the time they’d probably realize that the landowning/servant employing class were peevishly annoyed at all the servants skipping off to the mills and the shops, and no longer wanting to “serve” as their ancestors did.

I find that kind of annoyed, reluctant comment more illuminating than all the careful analysis by educated men and women, btw. It tends to be truer.

Of course, it is impossible to fully understand and feel the texture of people’s lives. Or to understand the impact of events in theirs or our own.

The other day I realized I was born less than 20 years from the end of World War II.  It seemed when I was growing up like it was unimaginably distant, but it was less than the time from 9/11 till now.

Was a lot of the stuff I was taught, a lot of the attitudes of teachers and older people around me (even my parents who were children during WWII) influenced by the war?  Or even WWI (which grandma’s generation remembered?)

Of course it was.  And her generation was influenced by her grandma’s who would remember the civil war.

These memories not perfect, occluded, sometimes fractional and embedded in song or proverb come to us and change us.

And we’ll never calculate all their influence or their distortions.

Because we’re like mayflies.  All we have is this one summer day, lit by light that transverses chasms of time and space so we can dance in it for our brief, ecstatic existence.

 

33 comments

  1. And yet, we tend to buy older houses, and I know it was not unusual to have one bathroom for a family of six or eight.

    Yo!

    (Although we do have two toilets, and are trying to figure logistics on getting a shower into a third place.)

    1. The houses where I lived as a child and a teenager were built in the late 1940s, very early 1950s – and yes, about 1,000 square feet with a single bathroom. Four kids, later a fifth foster kid. One bathroom, one telephone, one TV. Honestly, I think it would have been nearly impossible for any one of us kids to be a total hermit, not with everyone on top of everyone else.

      1. The working males – who might be as young as early teens – might spend twelve hours getting to work, at work, and getting back from work, six days a week. When not working, they might be members of a club or lodge; often, more than one. And “the pub” would be an important social activity. Church would cut into one or two days a week. So the adult males didn’t spend much time at home when not sleeping. Bathing was often done at work if you had a factory job. “Home” was where the women, bed, and spare clothing were; they “lived” elsewhere. Children generally played outside. So most of the time, the house was just teen and adult females.

        In my generation, people generally stayed home unless there was reason to be somewhere else, so demands for elbow room went up. Television is usually blamed for that; it might even be true. Club and lodge membership sank in a neat inverse relationship to percentage of homes with television. Vance Packard wrote several books about that sort of thing, mostly ignored nowadays. I don’t think he had the precise credentials the academics wanted.

        I’ve read about millennials who might share an apartment with eight or ten others, hot-bunking or sleeping on pallets. Not a home, just a place to sleep and store their 27 pairs of overpriced shoes. Hair care products are stored at the gym, where they bathe. They don’t *live* at the apartment. It’s almost a circle, except it’s a group of strangers instead of a family unit.

        1. Lots of airline pilots did that, especially back in the 1970s-90s if you worked for one of the sub-regionals. You got paid around 15,000 US per year, uniforms deducted, so you had a crash-pad with a bunch of other pilots. The airlines argued that “You’re not paying $500-1000 per hour for flight time! You should be appreciative.” Yes, the turnover was as fast as you can imagine.

        2. I’ve read about millennials who might share an apartment with eight or ten others, hot-bunking or sleeping on pallets. Not a home, just a place to sleep and store their 27 pairs of overpriced shoes. Hair care products are stored at the gym, where they bathe. They don’t *live* at the apartment. It’s almost a circle, except it’s a group of strangers instead of a family unit.

          Makes sense– that’s what was “normal” for their time growing up, even weekends you’re going to spend at least as much time outside of the house as in it. My husband has a whole flock of basically-foster-sisters because his mom was at home (half the time, so was his dad, but working in the basement office which was next to one of the places they could socialize) so these girls ended up spending more time around his parents than they did around their own.

          1. AND the student loans make their renting a place of their own impossible.
            Heck, younger son lived in a house with give roommates, and the interesting part is this: the houses/apartments are designed basically as dorms. The rooms have an ensuite bathroom and lock like an outdoor lock. The kitchen and living room are shared, but other than that, it’s like they have a mini-apartment, and honestly, son had a mini-fridge, and an electric kettle, so…
            Why? Because the rents shot up so much no college student or young worker could afford an apartment.

            1. And boarding houses are still functionally illegal. -.-
              (methods are different, but the motive boils down to “lots of young, single men causes problems, especially if they’re not local”)

          2. My house in the Philippines functioned sort of like this for a number of friends. One friend’s mom offered to pay rent, but he helped around the house doing ‘guy chores.’ He and I weren’t a thing, just friends, and the one time we got drunk together was spent philosophizing. I kinda wished we recorded it, just to hear how insane / weird we got. Most of the time we plotted out scenes for our weekly L5R game/story.

    2. My wife hates visiting my parent’s house, which I grew up in. Mostly because the bed is so different than ours at home. But also because of how small everything feels to her. The house was built in the late 40s, only two small bedrooms and a small bathroom on the main floor, and a half bath off the living room that used to be the garage when I was a kid. It didn’t seem that small growing up, but compared to even the house my wife and I live in (which she keeps complaining is too small).

      1. Some of it is design changes. The house we ended up buying is over a century old, and is even on the original house’s footprint except for a mud-and-laundry-room– BUT from where I’m sitting I can see where the room-divider across what is now the living room was, and there’s a line 18 inches below the now-ceiling where the ceiling use to be. (I have no idea why there was a two and a half foot gap between lower and upper levels, maybe they had a chimney in there or something?)

    3. Youngest of five kids, here, and technically the house did have a second bathroom. Well, actually, a half bath and a utility shower next to the washing machines. But we generally weren’t supposed to use that, since that was my Nana’s bathroom, and we were supposed to only use it in emergencies.

      Some people never had to schedule showers, you can tell. I always took mine in the evening, because there was a better chance of my hair having a chance to dry before school in the morning.

  2. no longer wanting to “serve” as their ancestors did.

    Given the gig economy and the automation of industry, these are worth reading. You could argue the descendants of those “escaped” servants are becoming a new servant class. You could even argue a lot of government regulation is to make them servants instead of independent works providing personal services.

    Lots of interesting story ideas to mine there.

    1. as some states try to kill the gig economy, and the president of Uber wants laws made to make gig economy companies do stuff to improve the working conditions- basically mandating it for everyone- rather than just effing DOING it for his own employees… its perfectly legal for him to do and there’s no reason for him to ask Congress to burden everyone else with it.

  3. And as for the factories, if they read books written by people at the time they’d probably realize that the landowning/servant employing class were peevishly annoyed at all the servants skipping off to the mills and the shops, and no longer wanting to “serve” as their ancestors did.

    Just realized I can’t think of a single story ranging from Agatha Christie’s writing time, back to Sherlock era where the “it’s impossible to get a decent servant these days” type thing wasn’t hammered on, if servants were mentioned at all. Sometimes the protagonist having One Good Servant was even noted as being unusual and awesome, and generally related to a life-long bond formed in war or similar over the top reason.

    But I can’t think of a single example of “servants have always been terrible,” which is what you’d expect if it was a normal whine.

    1. I was thinking of a quote from one of the Miss Marple books, where Mrs. Bantry is reflecting that she and her husband bought their home thinking, “It would be so easy to manage with only four servant…ONLY. I can’t imagine how we ever thought that.”

  4. “Was a lot of the stuff I was taught, a lot of the attitudes of teachers and older people around me (even my parents who were children during WWII) influenced by the war? Or even WWI (which grandma’s generation remembered?)

    I wonder just how different the generations view things cross borders/cultures? My grandfather served in WWII and probably had vastly different views coming from America than your parents who were children during that time.

  5. I remember learning/singing folk-songs with my grandmother while doing dishes (she washed; I dried). Home, Home on the Range, Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dina, and John Henry come to mind. Steam-powered equipment taking jobs from men?!?! I’m not THAT old. That was ancient history, even then. Now it is mostly just gone.
    Then there is Mother Goose. Hardly anyone is aware of the politics behind most of them – I’m only aware that there *are* politics behind them. Now that I think about it, London Bridge is Falling Down may be newly appropriate.

    1. Try the book _Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown_. And London Bridge might be about memories of human sacrifice (including later shadow sacrifice), perhaps.

  6. I think a lot of our “memories” of the past are from fiction. Books or movies. It’s gone with the the wind,, flying with the Red Baron, Pearl Harbor, down in an early submarine, or PT boat . . . D-Day . . .

    Which is one reason I hate movies and books that get it all wrong, rewriting history for their political purposes.

    1. Worth noting is that rewriting history for political purposes is hardly an invention of the modern day.
      Shakespeare’s history plays spring immediately to mind.

  7. My great-grandfather served with the Rough Riders and was a balloon observation pilot in WWI. My grandfather was a sort of spy and Air Force Col. in WWII in North Africa. All I have from them is handed-down stories. My father was in the Army in Vietnam and my uncle (one year younger than dad) in the Navy. Uncle never served in Vietnam…so their views of the actions and politics of that time were and are different. It’s been interesting to compare my (late) dad’s stories to the stories that my (still here) uncle tells. So, impressions, information, and understanding can be very different from close individuals.

  8. For several years I’ve been fiddling with the notion of a fantasy novel set in the early Industrial Revolution, with as one of the main characters a young woman who escapes the desperate poverty and boredom of farm life when, hallelujah! she gets taken on at the new mill. I’m so tired of novels with dark Satanic mills! Unpleasant as factory work was in many ways, for many it was a huge improvement on life down on the farm.

    1. Here’s a North Carolina woman in 1899: “We all went to work in the Amazon Cotton Mill and we all worked there all our lives. We were all anxious to go to work because, I don’t know, we didn’t like the farming. It was so hot from sunup to sun down. No, that was not for me. Mill work was better…Once we went to work in the mill after we moved here from the farm, we had more clothes and more kinds of food…And we had a better house.”

      …and a Chinese woman of the present day:

      “(Farming) is really had work. Every morning, from 4am to 7am, you have to cut through the bark of 400 rubber trees in total darkness. It has to be done before daybreak, otherwise the sunshine will evaporate the rubber juice. If you were me, would you prefer the factory or the farm?”

      I cited these stories in my post about the possible automation of the apparel manufacturing process…(the cut-and-sew phase, which currently employs millions around the world, as opposed to the spinning and weaving phases, which have been highly mechanized for a long time.) If and when these automation technologies work at scale, the social and economic implications are going to be vast.

      https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/59010.html

      1. That’s from Travels of a T-Shirt, isn’t it? Very interesting book. Steve almost threw out my copy the other day and I discovered that I can actually move quite fast to save something I value.

      1. Oh, could I? I do love what you’re doing with that world. One of my favorite parts was early in the first book where the heroine notices a huge difference between her home world/universe and this one: there isn’t nearly so much stuff around. Things are few and mostly precious. That observation made me think of the bit in Mansfield Park where two of Fanny’s sisters have a vicious ongoing battle over possession of a little silver knife.

        1. Of course. I’m getting a Bible for the series put together, and as long as you put something like “In Sarah Hoyt’s Empire of Magic universe” feel free to use it.
          Also, Heinlein and his sister apparently had a running battle over a PILLOW.
          We are unimaginably blessed.

          1. Wonderful! I promise to nag you, very politely, and at reasonable intervals, about that Bible. Even if I weren’t tempted to dabble in the universe myself, I’d want to read it; I wish more writers did that. (Not that I plan to be one of them. A LOT of work, and it’s not like anybody else has asked to play in my worlds.)

  9. The thing about being a maid was that you were supposed to answer when they rang the bell. One article writer conceded that it might be hard if you were up until two in the morning because of the ball and then had to answer it at six — but hey, that was the job.

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