Do we live our lives remembering a past that didn’t actually exist?
“Where I’m from we believe in all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.” – The Wizard of Oz – Wicked
A couple of weeks ago a colleague recommended that I read Wright Thompsons’s book, entitled Pappyland: A Story of Family, Bourbon, and the Things That Last. Full disclosure, I am not a big bourbon enthusiast, though I don’t mind a shot of Jim Beam in my Sun-Drop from time to time, so I wasn’t entirely sure about picking up the book. The friend who suggested it, though, is pretty much on point with many of my other general interests, so I figured it was worth a shot (so to speak). I found the book on my library app, had it delivered to my Kindle, and a week later I had consumed a book that was about SO much more than just bourbon.
One of the concepts Thompson discusses in the book is the idea of glossing over the past, filtering and improving memories like we now do with pictures on our smart phones. This struck we on several levels. First, we are certainly doing this as a country. We don’t want to face, let alone accept our violent, racist past, preferring instead to idolize the mythical heroes who shaped the United States as they are today – One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, blah, blah, blah. We don’t want to think about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as slaveholders, we don’t want to think of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant as generals who fought to keep people enslaved, and we are very busily going about the business of both whitewashing that past and attempting to remove any notion that we have not always been a “Christian” nation. Whatever that means. The Founders themselves were adamant that religion be kept out of government, as the Church of England was what they were fleeing in the first place. That’s a story for another time.
We also gloss over our personal histories. When I think about my childhood, I mostly evoke good memories. My maternal grandparents lived on a sizable piece of land in Concord, North Carolina, and on that land they had two substantial gardens. One garden had every kind of vegetable known to man, the other was just corn. Yes, we loved corn! At night, when my grandfather got home from work, we would go out and “pick dinner,” which meant squash, tomatoes, okra, carrots and maybe radishes from one garden, and ears of corn from the other.
When we got back up to the house my grandmother would have the kitchen set up and ready to go, and for me that meant fresh fried okra would be coming soon! I swear that stuff almost never made it to the table because we would all swarm around the fryer like baby birds, mouths gaping, waiting for their mothers to drop in the food. While my grandmother cooked, my grandfather and I would sit on the back deck and shuck corn, later to be consumed as corn on the cob, cut corn, corn soup, corn bread and probably some other things I can’t even remember.
This is a true memory, and I really don’t think there’s any glossing over involved. The part that gets lost in the retelling is that Mom and I were living with her parents because she left my dad, who joined the Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Army due to the conflict in Vietnam, because she didn’t like living overseas (I was born in Spain and then briefly lived in England). I have a vivid memory of being ripped from my father’s arms as we boarded a plane that would take me away from him for an unknown period of time. I had to have been two or three years old but that memory is etched in my brain as vividly as my memory of doing yoga this morning, but it’s one I evoke far less often and mostly just try to forget.
Other strong memories from my childhood involve Dad’s side of the family in Oregon. My grandparents on his side also had a big garden, but they had something else, too. All around their house in Albany were Gravenstein apple trees, and during the summer those trees were laden with the most delicious apples I’ve ever eaten in my life. My sister and I would go out and pick those apples for my grandmother, who was waiting in the kitchen to make the most mind-blowing apple sauce ever experienced in the history of apples. That’s no exaggeration! Seriously, the crap we buy in stores now shouldn’t even be called applesauce because it’s an abomination…it’s sacrilege …it’s a disgrace…it’s just WRONG!
That’s a true memory, as well, but what I gloss over when I share it with my daughter is the heartache that landed me in Oregon several times a year. The divorce that tore my family in two also meant that my parents lived thousands of miles apart. I desperately hated to leave Oregon because it meant that I wouldn’t see my family out there for months until the next break from school. To this day, the Portland airport (PDX) gives me anxiety and it’s been remodeled to the point that it’s almost unrecognizable from the airport of my childhood.
That’s not a memory I easily or willingly conjure up when sharing my childhood memories with my baby girl.
The reality is that most of what actually made up my childhood is basically lost, like the vast majority of the lives of our Founding Fathers. Yes, with enough work they can be recalled (or researched), but in terms of our daily lives they have been pushed so far into the recesses of our memories that they are effectively lost, along with the perspectives that made the past what it was.
I can share my memories of those experiences of my grandparents with my daughter, but it’s unlikely that she will ever go out and “pick dinner” moments before the fresh food is prepared and served. Our culture certainly doesn’t lend itself to that activity any more. I can share my memory of picking apples and that amazing applesauce my grandmother made, but my daughter will never taste it. The reality is that the world I lived in as a child is gone forever, for better (in some ways) or for worse (in others).
The best thing I can hope to do is to allow the person I am as a result of those wonderful memories to inform the kind of father I am as I create memories my daughter’s own body of memories, which will hopefully, in turn do the same thing for her children some day. It turns out that we really do only have the present, while the past is relegated to the shadowy background of our lives.
Let’s make the most of it!