A Past Worth Preserving

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I wrote my great-grandmother’s “biography” when I was nine or ten. It was terrible. It all started because I had a magazine, and I wanted to interview her for the “Premier Edition.” (My aunt had worked for a magazine for a few years after college, hence the language.) I took a yellow legal pad and a blue pen and sat across from my great-grandmother in my dead great-grandfather’s blue recliner. The sun shone hot through the bay window, and I remember feeling pretty grown-up, asking all these questions. I had a legal pad, after all.

I asked her about growing up in the early 1900s. I asked her what she did for fun, what school was like, what her home was like filled with six people. I asked her how her hometown was different during WWI than it is now, and I asked her what she liked to eat and how she met my great-grandfather. I wrote furiously because I didn’t want to miss a word and the thought of writing shorthand never occurred to me. My great-grandmother’s handwriting was always beautiful – smooth and looped – and mine was hurried and uneven and merely served a purpose.

I think I was in awe of the sheer amount of time sitting across from me. Born in 1909, my grandmother had seen both World Wars and all the other atrocities and beauties of the 20th century. I crafted the interview with all the intensity of a ten-year-old who wanted desperately to preserve the past, and a copy of that old magazine is tucked away in my great-grandfather’s briefcase where I keep all my old creations.

I’d forgotten about the interview and the resulting mini-biography until this morning. For Christmas my mother bought me a book by Donald Hall, the former poet laureate: String Too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm. It’s a thin paperback, first published in 1961, and it has a poet’s carefulness of language and transcendent moments.

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Hall writes of his grandparents’ farm and the summers he spent living and working alongside them. He writes of moments in the hayfield when all he ever wanted was to hay, and of a time when he was so exhausted and thirsty from picking blueberries that he couldn’t imagine his 70-year-old grandfather was still plugging away, stripping the low-growing bushes of their tiny wild berries. The love Hall felt for his grandparents and the place is so palpable, it made me fall in love with them myself. His poetry was born in the fields of New Hampshire.

Hall says he had a “need to conserve the past,” and I know that is what I felt sitting across from my great-grandmother, desperate to grasp this other life that I would never know.

It seemed abominable to me that I had only one life to live, and that the realities and hardships and loveliness of this woman’s life would be lost to nothingness when she died.

I don’t think she herself felt such a desperation.

During college, Hall found himself longing for his friends during the lonely summers in New Hampshire. He doesn’t hide the horrible guilt he felt, and I knew exactly what he was talking about; the deep love you have, yet the desire for something stirring inside you.

The book ends as I knew it would. His grandfather dies when Hall is 24, and even though that is the way of every life, I cried. I haven’t cried at a book in a good long time, and I was surprised and glad that no one was around. How can you explain crying over someone else’s dead grandfather? Someone who’d lived a good life and worked hard and loved well?

I think I was struck as much by the beauty as the sadness. There was such strength in the life of this man I will never know, this grandfather who had shaped a young boy more than he realized. I saw the sweet progression of life, the stories of family and friends and small-town myths all woven together. It was not mysterious. It was not filled with world-travel or adventures or death-defying heroic acts. The adventures and heroic acts were contained in the fields of generations of farmers, and they breathe in the pages of this book.

My great-grandmother’s life is much the same way. She grew up and lived in the same city until she was 95 and moved in with my aunt and uncle. She didn’t go to college, but she loved words and music and games. She had four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and she made lemon meringue pie and cole slaw for every family dinner. She went to Niagara Falls and took pictures and she attended the same church her entire life.

What is this desire to preserve the past? In some ways it feels like an avoidance. I am constantly living in the past or the future, my eyes set both forwards and back. I hold on to my great-grandmother and my grandmother’s words tightly, as if they hold some secret to a better time. How do I get that? I wonder. How do I get stories? How do I live? I don’t think either one of these women ever really thought about that; living was what you did, not what you thought about.

I am striving to live some huge life, some remarkable, adventurous life. I’m wondering if I have my priorities straight. Maybe a past worth preserving doesn’t have to be of legendary proportions; maybe it has to be true.

Summer 2008 016The summer after I graduated high school – all six of us kids on our yearly vacation.

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