Giving Up on the Past

It is a mark of high intelligence when young people get frustrated with their elders for forgetting the past. They suspect somebody is hiding something, or has been careless with their legacy, or was being lazy. How hard is it to remember what relatives were like; what years certain events played out; the proper technique for Grandma’s soup?

Granted, there is a lot of data in a life. Memory Almost Full, Paul McCartney titled his 14th solo album. Most of us lead more prosaic lives, but memory can still be spotty.

My sons get impatient: Who was this Larry you mentioned …?

Larry was my cousin Betty’s son-in-law, I say. He was in Vietnam—I think as a Ranger or at least Airborne—and one December when I was a kid I watched him climb several enormous oaks, in his jungle boots, to harvest mistletoe, so our Cub Scout den could sell it for a fundraiser. It was cold that day. He was a nice guy.

They look at me expectantly, but there is nothing more of Larry in my brain (or in the hive mind of the internet). Should I feel bad?

Anonymous is how most of us wind up, on the way to oblivion. That one guy was the priest who ate all the caviar at the wedding. She was the lady who told me, 60 years after it happened, that a black GI had followed her one evening during the war. He was that Spanish soldier, killed by Aztecs while fleeing Tenochtitlan, whose comrades were puzzled when they found a leather phallus in his saddlebags. How much does any of this mean to understanding the life and times?

Of course I wish I could ask my mother, father, aunts, and uncles questions about themselves, now that I am old enough to understand. Is the inscription to my mother, on a slip of paper I found only last week, from Wilma Rudolph the Olympic champion, or a crony with the same name in Buckhorn, Illinois?

I have come to understand that most people depart still in possession of their stories. I suppose it makes the loss a little easier to bear if you accept this is how it always has been, and that after a generation or two it does not matter. Besides, we are kept busy creating our own stories.

But all this is cold comfort to my kids—and I agree with them. Until The All decides to Recycle My Materials, I will be as impatient as they are with those who give up on the past, as if it was never important to begin with.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.