Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Past Is Always Present

When I wrote The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Secrets of Marienstadt I had no idea that so many people from backgrounds similar to mine would both enjoy it and relate to it. In writing the eleven stories that comprised that book I used stories told by family and friends as the inspiration for each story and, though I thought of them as my family's stories, many other people told me similar tales were told in their families. Because my heritage is largely German (with a little bit of Scottish and a little bit of Swiss) I wrote about German culture in my stories but a few people said, “My people came from Ireland (or Italy or Poland) and they tell stories like that, too.”

So, when I decided to write a sequel, I knew I was going to have to delve into the past as the background for my new stories. My friend Ray and I often talk about the proximity of the past to the present. We have marveled over how connected we feel to people who lived a century or more ago because we knew people who knew those people. Ray, who is my age, knew our home town's historian, Charles Schaut—I knew him, too, though not as well as Ray. And Charlie knew some of the town's original settlers. So even though the original Marienstadt was founded in 1842, even now in 2015, we knew someone who knew our founders. It is this, to me, remarkable gift of memory and story-telling that is ever-present as I am working on the next collection of stories.

I sometimes wonder if people still sit around and tell stories like they used to. In our age of instant electronic communication we are always connected to everyone but does that instant access inspire us to look back into our histories? I don't know. My nephew is backpacking through New Zealand right now and he uploads beautiful photographs to Facebook so we can travel with him. Much as I love looking at them, I wish I could hear him telling me where they are and what he experiences looking at them. I want that sense of his personal experience.

At Christmas time I was in my hometown for a few days and my brother had a wonderful party. There were over 30 family members there and a few of us old folks did sit around over way too many beers and tell some stories about things that happened when we were young. The young folks listened, laughed, asked questions. It made me happy especially because the function hall where the party was held was in the very room in which my mother had worked for several years and as her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren talked and laughed and shared their day, I could imagine her sitting in the corner smiling and enjoying every minute of it. And then I remembered that my Grandfather Valentine had once frequented the club next door, I thought maybe he lingered there, too, even though he died before I was born.

Technology is a wonderful thing—it provides the means for us to share so much. But it is the human act of communication, of telling stories and sharing memories, that keeps us connected to those who have gone before us. My youngest siblings never knew my father's mother. It is only when I say things like “Grandma Valentine had a canary that sat in the sunshine and sang so beautifully and Grandma baked delicious bread and hung bunches of herbs in the back stairwell to dry” that they get a sense of their grandmother.

The past is ever-present when we share our memories and this is something I find beautiful and important to knowing who we are. The other day on Facebook a second cousin of mine asked if I knew anything about where our mutual grandmother came from. So I wrote a post about how our Great-x-5-grandfather Abraham Kobel left Switzerland in 1749 to come to Pennsylvania and how he fought with Geroge Washington in the Revolution. She had no idea about that and was so delighted to read about it. We are flesh and blood but we are also memory and history. We have to take time to share. As long as there are older people who will talk to younger people the past stays alive in us. It keeps us connected. It helps us understand who we are.

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