Don’t Know? Ask a Historian

Live long enough and you become a historian.

I realized that a few years ago when I was working in higher education. Just about everybody was younger than I was, which meant they were better on the computer, made cultural references I didn’t catch, and used debit cards instead of cash.

The only thing I really caught on to with great enthusiasm was the whole debit-card business. I now look at folding money and change with the same kind of puzzled expression I use for an old acquaintance I haven’t seen in years and haven’t really missed. I am too hip and with-it for cash, I like to think, even if I still don’t get cultural references by anybody under the age of 55.

We’re into double-edged sword territory, though, so age wasn’t always a liability at my former job. When you’re older and don’t talk a lot, younger people often think you’re wise and they ask your advice about all kinds of things. I love having people think I’m wise and I adore handing out solicited advice to young people who actually may heed it. (This is an entirely different relationship from the parent-child dynamic, believe me.)

Also, when ancient history from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s came up, my colleague Suzanne and I were always consulted with what I like to think was great respect. Suzanne, who was more idealistic than I was, particularly liked to talk about the sixties. Unfortunately, every time she started to about Bobby Kennedy, she’d begin to cry. After a while, she’d be hauling out Kleenexes and loudly blowing her nose, and we’d have to shift the subject to something less emotional, like lunch.

Anyway, I loved being treated like an authority about recent history, too. But, when you think about it, there’s more than one kind of recent history. There are the vivid, cataclysmic events that altered the world — like the War in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination. Then, there are the quieter, smaller occurrences in our own lives and in the lives of those around us that are personally momentous, that alter individual lives, while the rest of the world lurches on, oblivious.

These smaller, more personal events have always intrigued me much more than the grander story lines. The older you are, I’ve come to think, the more of a personal historian you become. You can’t forget everything and everyone significant you have seen and known — and that list keeps getting longer with every year.

Last week, I stood on a corner in Dallas, looking down a residential street. I suppose I saw the same scenes as any other observer — a well-kept street of medium-sized houses with neat yards. It was nice, it was unremarkable, it was pleasant on the eyes. You wouldn’t have lingered there, transfixed, unless you were a realtor, a burglar, or someone who had once lived there.

I wasn’t a realtor or a felon, but my husband and kids and I had lived on that block for 10 years. I could go from house to house on that block, telling you why that row of shrubs were so high between the first two houses on the left (she said her next-door neighbor exposed himself to her; he said she was crazy; they screamed insults and the shrubs grew taller and taller). Or I could tell you about the tree that crashed in the middle of the street, stopping traffic and spawning an impromptu block party. Or the Fourth of July gatherings when my husband and some of his nutso neighborhood friends exploded pipe bombs and barbecued a goat.

I could tell you so many other stories of friendship and love and death, real heroics and cheap grandstanding and petty betrayals — all from the vivid 10 years our family spent on that block. You see an ordinary-looking group of houses; I see a living tableau teeming with shouts and waves and carpools and barbecues and people who have vanished or moved on. I can hardly see the view you see — my own vision is too layered and intricate and turbulent for that.

I can tell you everything, in fact, except whether one neighbor really exposed himself to the other. But, in my view as a personal historian, they were both pretty crazy. The tall shrubs were an excellent compromise.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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6 comments… add one
  • Ruth,

    This totally resonated. So well told, as always.

  • It seems to me that you get older and have this huge storehouse of stories but no one wants to hear them. I grew up with parents who did not talk about the past so I’ve tried really hard to actively tell my kids family stories, but I think they just don’t want to hear as many as I want to tell!

  • Ruth,
    as I’m getting used to the fact that my whole neighborhood is going to be torn down by this time next year — and that at the moment I’m not sure where my path will lead me to be at that time — your thoughts resonated. so much context connected to place…

  • merr Link

    Historian AND keeper of the archives (as in all those photos that everyone took over the years). It’s a lot to keep track of!

  • I would ask you for advice anytime. Great post.

  • I’m stuck in this, right now, with a lot of lurching going on around me. Any tips?

    “Then, there are the quieter, smaller occurrences in our own lives and in the lives of those around us that are personally momentous, that alter individual lives, while the rest of the world lurches on, oblivious.”

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