Your Words Today Connect You With Your Great-Grandchildren Tomorrow
A century ago, when the flu pandemic of 1918 infected 500 million people, there weren’t many photos or videos to document the experience. There certainly wasn’t Facetime and most people didn’t have telephones.
Today, our less perfect versions of a litter of snapshots are deleted in favor of those capturing every eye opened, smile framed and lighting perfected. Even Instagram story video clips showing “real life, behind-the-scenes” can’t accurately portray the difficulty and depth of our moments.
But there is one art form that can express the layered joy and turmoil of our lives at any given time, with precision and authority. What has always existed, regardless of technology, are our words, on tablet — be it stone, stenographer’s notepad or digital device.
Centuries before the light bulb offered an easier, night time glow, writers were documenting history by firelight with sharpened rocks on cave walls, by candlelight with ink dipped quill pens on parchment paper and by moonlight with stylus’ on clay tablets.
You Remember What You Write
I hadn’t considered writing about this publicly frenzied, personally subdued, time of COVID-19. With two small children at home, there is little time for Netflix, yet many hours of Disney Plus, few chances to “catch up” on projects and plenty of opportunities to remake the couch after the cushions are modeled into soft landings for sofa jumpers.
But yesterday, I heard a man say this writing is how we remember. When 50 years from now, a classroom full of high school students nods dutifully learning about the Coronavirus of 2020, it will seem as distant as the Great Depression does to me now, as unreal as the Civil War, as unbelievable as car-less roads and homes without color televisions. A relic of honest writing from my grandparent or great-parent can be the most valuable heirloom.
In my room is a binder full of handwritten letters from my Great-Grandfather, Roy, during World War I to his Grandmother, Fannie (who doesn’t love this name for this great-great-great grandmother of mine?) who raised him. A letter dated, “Somewhere in the middle of June, The Atlantic Ocean, 1918,” includes the following line:
“I expect you read lots of things about the American soldiers, but it takes the soldiers themselves to write the things up in the right fashion….”
Isn’t that the truth? No one can tell your personal history like you can. The New York Times certainly won’t be documenting the affairs of the Sylvester household from 2020. Only I can do that.
In my grandfather’s packet, letters, a few photos and a couple of tissue paper editions of the 1919 “The Stars and Stripes” are bound between plastic pages, a history over 20 years before my own grandmother’s birth secured in the scrawlings her father took time to write — and someone else took care to save — so the rest of us could touch the humanity of that time without a scrap of living relative to connect us.
Bring History to Life
When we look back at our photos and videos, we can guess how we felt, what we lived, who we missed — but we won’t know the vibrant span emotions, the real-time education, or the details of imperfection that framed this strange time of quarantine and cancellation.
But I’ve decided I’d like to. And I’m going to do some documenting from here on out. I hope you’ll join me in penning your own history, writing it down for your grandchildren and theirs. Perhaps a century from now it will be easier to read than the dull led that remains on the air-grams sent across the sea from my great-grandfather in 1918.
Perhaps those vivid, perfect photos of your walks in the woods and lessons at home, dance parties in the kitchen and movie nights in, can be accompanied by the fears that lived between the moments, the relief that came when the schedule was cleared or the angst the surfaced when a job was lost, a parent was sick or a child fell behind in school. The details of your life matter now and for the lives that go far beyond yours when this is all said and done.
I never met my great-grandfather, but I’m getting to know him now. What a gift that is.