Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Layers of Time

Where Present and Past Meet

We visited an old family friends yesterday and it was a reminder of how much we need those contacts in our hectic twittering lives. Our friend has recently had some health scares and so she had a special kind of sobriety and clarity. She seemed taller, more athletic, than I had seen in decades. You had the sense that she had looked clearly, seen that she did not have many years to go, and was determined to put all of her life in order. That made her seem strong and determined not sad at all. When she first started sorting her papers several years ago she had come across some old letters that she herself had inherited — they were a cache of letters from Albert Einstein (her husband had been his doctor and she was close to one of his daughters). When I showed copies of letters to my 9 year old son, he could not believe his eyes — this man he has read in books about greatest geniuses, this icon of wild hair and amazing ideas — was almost there in the room, his signature there on a Xeroxed page.
       As I said this is an old family friend, I have been visiting her apartment since I was born (her husband was first married to my aunt. When my aunt passed away, he remarried the friend, so she has always been a kind fo honorary aunt). She remembered going to my Bar Mitzvah, which took place the day after JFK was shot. Once again history was in the room was us. My past, her past — and a past that to my sons is like, what, World War I?, was to me — was right there, a common memory, not a line in a textbook, not a date in a timeline.
   I am sure that schools bring in elderly people with special memories — the Holocaust, Civil Rights Movement — to speak to classes. But this visit reminded me of something else. We all experience the history of our time — we recall where we were when: we heard about Pearl Harbor, or VE Day, or the Abomb, or Brown v Board of Ed or JFK being Killed, or MLK being killed, or Bobby being killed, or Obama being elected — we have these markers in our memories. I think kids need to meet people who were alive in those moment, just as, for kids, being alive today is, what, the Yankess winning round one of the playoffs, or a parent losing a job, or a friend moving away. Just that contact makes the past real — and not a dead assignment.


  1. Peni Griffin says:

    Places can make this real, too. I was an Air Force brat and we traveled from station to station by car, as well as driving to see relatives during vacation. There were three of us kids and we were – contentious. My mom would stop us at historical markers and we didn’t catch on that this was to break the trip. We figured the markers were important (and they are). Her technique for adjusting to a new place, also, was to check books about it out of the library, big stacks, non-fictin and historical fiction. Now I live in San Antonio and when I give people The Tour I can barely shut up, telling them about the ghosts all over downtown, the drama of moving the Fairmount Hotel, how there were so many hangings here the priest chopped down ten trees to keep them from doing it in front of his house, the boy who hung onto a tree all night during the ’21 flood, hanging onto the neighbor boy that he didn’t have the strength to pull out of the water, but wouldn’t let go of…And I want to know these things when I go to other people’s towns, but they don’t know them! Wah! Why don’t you? Go find out!

  2. I agree place has memory in exactly the same way. If you think about it, place and personal memory is what we lose in textbooks — information removed grounding in experience.