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.