Sunday Afternoon Rocking

I Remember When...

"I remember when..." are their words and the memories they recount seem all too recent to me... Listening to my grown children reminisce about their earliest memories of an event that changed the face of a nation, I suddenly realized that what they were reciting were memories they clasped tightly, and would be the stories that they would tell and re-tell one day to generations to come...

He pulled open a bag and began to lay them before me one by one, upon the farm table. I ran my fingers over the chipped flint in wonder as my grandfather recited the stories he knew from elders before himself. He pulled out the crowning wonder of all, the very perfectly shaped arrow head, and he told me where he had come by these. In the pastures all around he had turned the rich black earth, and in the secrets that bore the fruit that nourished a family...were other secrets. They were mine he said, all but the most perfect one of all, and that could be mine one day. Gently I placed them back in their bag, touched the past, and clasped it tightly to me... my imagination reeling back in time to the days the first of my paternal family came to this the days when men of another color, the same race my maternal grandmother told me I had descended from, left their mark within the earth. He did not "remember when", but he had known those who knew those who remembered when. He had clasped the memories tightly to him.

He vaguely gestured toward the hills around, and clapped his hands to imitate the thunder of cannon balls. His elders remembered it, he told me, and it was so that even here they could hear the clash of a battle destined to alter the fate of a nation. They remembered the fear of drifters and they remembered hiding their valuables, their food. They remembered when blood ran in angry red rivulets upon the floors of a home place nearby, used as a hospital for the wounded. And I stared at the empty home place, looked toward the distant hills and touched the past, and clasped it tightly to me. He did not "remember when", but he had known those who remembered when.

Much later, I would realize this grandfather "remembered when" on his own...and no recitation of a past he had been given. He had known with stark clarity another war, although he never spoke of it. He had held in his hands the telegram that told him his brother was dead, had been killed in the final great Hindenburg front at the very end of the Great War, and all the time he thought the war over and his brother coming home. A farmer, waiting for his brother to return, the political upheaval across an ocean was meaningless to him...but the understanding that his brother was sacrificed for the country he loved was not. His brother's portrait hung upon the wall for all of my memory, yet he never spoke of it, and the story was one I would unearth myself much later and realize the pain of. It was one I would clasp to me, and my children would embrace the meaning of.

Past a youthful prime, even at this early part of the century, my grandfather would have remembered the first automobile, and the first light bulb he ever saw. And one day he would open his work-worn hands and reveal to me a chestnut, and when I looked askance at his choice of a gift...he would tell me of the trees that once stood tall and proud...and of the chestnut blight that took them. Wars he knew and could remember when...wars of progress, wars of pain, and wars of nature. He touched the past and bid me touch the chestnut in remembrance...and I clasped it tightly to me.

My mother has often spoken of the strong imprint made upon her by World War II. She has talked of the rationing, of the drives to gather scrap metal, of making her "jacks" out of a wallpaper paste mixture because metal was not available. She remembered cousins going off to war, some never to return. Pain still enters her voice when she speaks of the news clips of Jewish concentration camps that were aired at movie theaters. I realize that this period of our nation's history helped to shape her own growth, and that those days are unforgettable...and that through her, I have again touched the past, and clasped it tightly to me.

I tell my children of the day I was bid to watch John Glenn's flight and remember...of the fall-out shelter drills, of the changing event I remember with the most clarity of all on a chilly, rainy November day. I sat in a classroom of other students when the brown box that served as an intercom began to crack and pop in the way it did when an announcement was about to be aired, I tell them. Stunned, I sat listening to the words that told us our country's President had been assassinated, and little understanding the full import of the words, I did indeed know it was of more serious a nature than anything I had known before when the students were then summarily dismissed from school. I walked home in a drizzle that threatened to become the downpour it had been earlier, watching the yellowed muddy water swirling in drainage ditches beside the road and wondering over this situation that had actually upset adults so deeply that school had simply been dismissed. The mood of a day seemed to match the mood of a nation. Yes, I understood that something had happened that would change the face of our nation, and I understood that this day was one I would never forget. And my children touch the past with my own memories. I bid them clasp it tightly to them.

And so our memories stretch out across the gulf of time to touch one another, and the tattered ends of one chain of memory meets the tattered beginnings of another...until they make an endless chain that is nothing more than the timeline of history on a personal level, and as felt by common people with little hand in the causing of it except in collective terms, but much in the living of it on personal ones.

My children may be young adults, and their memories such recent ones in perspective to my own, but those memories are indeed as meaningful as my grandfather's or his mother's or her fathers. With one link left unaccounted for in the chain, a piece of our family memory is missing. I wonder if they realize the idle conversation they held today is in actuality a part of something that extends so far back they cannot imagine, and will extend so far into the future they have never dreamed of it? And I wonder, if long ago, so far back that the memory is no longer even a part of the oral tradition of a family, some ancestor began an idle conversation with, "I remember when..." I suspect so. I suspect that has always been, in whatever language, in whatever part of the world. Clasp it tightly to you.

just a thought,

Copyright ©2000JanPhilpot



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