11 August 14
A while ago, I began to realize that as my peers move into oldest age, the ones who carry with them tools from the arts – music, painting, drawing, writing – are equipped – given health – to fill their days with pleasure. They are seldom bored. You don’t have to be mobile to read or write or play the piano or paint.
When the oldest people in any generation die, the stories that made them who they were die with them. Of those who follow, someone here or there will pop up with an interest in genealogy to track the family tree and end up with a handsome picture with names on it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the stories – about, for instance, my aunt who ghost wrote book reviews for the New York Times and sometimes in the evening hours had an affair with a neighbor who walked across the fields to visit.
You might ask, “How many reviews? How often did they meet?” But this is not biography; this is about flavor. These tales were part of my aunt’s story as passed down by her sisters, and I like smiling about the old person I once knew as she wrote book reviews for someone else and played life games with a neighbor when she was young.
I remember an unimportant incident that was significant to me because it became part of who I am. I was six when my father rowed me away from Chocomount Beach in a rowboat. He stowed the oars, cast a line, and with some minor amount of struggle, pulled in a small shark which we towed to the beach where he pulled it up on the sand and killed it with a rock. That was it for me with fishing and oceans. Why are small events so lasting? I still love to cast a lure, always with the hope of catching nothing.
This isn’t about achievement which rarely reflects the essence of a person. It’s about episodes that reflect personality. If you think you must write a book, you won’t do it, probably because you think you can’t. In this otherwise wonderful Internet era when journal writing is over, we are losing the color of our past.
It’s true in every cycle that right up through their 50s young people are absorbed by self and family. At 60, they begin to be interested in their past, and as we die, they regret not asking questions sooner. My own head is full of the beginnings of stories I heard at the Sunday dinner table in the ‘30s and never followed up because I was always preoccupied with the detail of living my own busy life.
As survivors, we need to write for our grown children. Consider the pleasure of writing the stories of the culture of our time, our families, and our friends. No one has to be a professional writer to capture the flavor of these memories. We can just write as we talk, passing along the humanity of our generation. What was life like when you were young? What made you who you are?
Though a genealogy is a useful record, a reference point for those who want it, stories are a real gift to the people who follow us. They can be a fine tool for securing a sure purpose in our lives at a time when we sometimes wonder – in the invisibility of our 80s – exactly why we are still here. I like to think of writing random memories as the pleasure of survival and the natural use of our hard won perspective. How fine it is that simply living a long time has handed us the gift of content.