Borrowed Time: The World at 65
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
"Being an historian, I am jotting down these notes out of habit; but what I saw and experienced two days ago I am sure no one else as civilized as I am will ever see. I am writing for those who shall come a long time from now."
So began "The Prophecy," a mock futuristic fantasy set after some great cold war cataclysm, which several members of my high school graduating class collaborated on back in 1962. It was, of course, for our yearbook and made fun of the class, A to Z. It was also a classic document of the moment, written by representatives of the first generation of "teenagers" who, crouching under their school desks as the sirens of an atomic-attack drill howled outside, imagined that no one in their world might make it.
"First of all, let me introduce myself," "I" continued. "I am Thomas M. Engelhardt, world renowned historian of the late twentieth century, should that mean anything to whoever reads this account. After the great invasion, I was maintaining a peaceful, contented existence in the private shelter I had built, and was completing the ninth and final volume of my masterpiece, The Influence of the Civil War on Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century..."
Okay, so they had me pegged. Not only, in those years, did I read whatever post-nuclear pulp fiction I could get my hands on--you know, the kind with landscapes filled with atomic mutants and survivalist communities--but I was a Civil War nut. Past disasters and future catastrophes, and somehow it all made sense.
I was, in fact, a nut for the American past generally, in part, I suspect, because the familial past wasn't available. My parents, typically enough for second and third generation Americans, were in flight from their own pasts, from all that not-so-distant squalor and unhappiness, or just plain foreign-ness, much the way, once upon a time, so many other Americans had fled small towns for the Big City.
My father rarely spoke of his own life--his parents, his childhood, his years growing up, the Great Depression, and especially his experiences in World War II (and in this he was typical of a generation that did not come home from the grimmest of wars with the idea that they were "the greatest"). My mother acted as if her past were the proverbial blank slate. She told but three stories from her childhood: one in which she broke her nose in a softball game, another in which she jumped out of a second-story window to test whether a sheet would work as a parachute, and a third in which an evil but rich uncle humiliated her loveable but ne'er-do-well inventor of a father.
Perhaps that very past-less-ness left me with a yen for roots, which I then found in the sole place available: American history. Toss in the time an only child had in a room still surprisingly bare of entertainment, and it was hardly surprising that, as early as third grade, I started devouring the biographies--hagiographies actually--of assorted American heroes. They were little books focusing on Kit Carson or Clara Barton with memorably orange covers.
And not so long after, I graduated to the Landmark Books series, back in the days when history was still a series of accepted and acceptable "landmarks": Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia, The Pony Express, Gettysburg, The Panama Canal, Custer's Last Stand. By high school, I was ingesting every book the popular Civil War historian Bruce Catton ever wrote. I was, by then, a proud subscriber to the classy American history magazine American Heritage, thought of the American past as mine, memorized famous speeches by generals and presidents in my spare time, and so was an all-too-inviting target for a little teenage fun.
Tomorrow, I turn 65, an age I simply never imagined for myself back in those youthful years. And the past, I must admit, now lurks somewhat closer to home, as of course does the future, my future. Sometimes these days, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror--the bald head, the mustache that's gone silvery white, the little bumps and discolorations of every sort, in short, that aging face--I see my long-dead father staring back. Each time, it's a visceral shock. Like an ambush. Like a sucker punch in the gut. I feel horror--not him, not in my face!--and love, but not acceptance. Not yet anyway.
I can't begin to tell you how eerie it feels when the past resides not in some book, but like a still-developing snapshot, a blurry subway portrait of the dead, in your own face. It led me recently to pull down from the topmost reaches of my closet some of my old family photos, many of them now beyond meaning, the equivalents of inscriptions in the hieroglyphs of an unknown language. For this part of my private past, there are no witnesses left. Not a one. No one who can fill me in on the dramatis personae.
The oldest of the albums I have, my mother's, I discovered only after both my parents were dead: two-holed and horizontal, a black cover with the words "Snap Shots" on it, each black page now loose of any binding, edges crumbling as if nibbled by mice.
Only several pages in do I first recognize, in an elfin child's face, the woman who would become my mother and would die in 1977, so long ago that sometimes I hardly believe she existed.
There she is, though, perhaps six or seven, standing in a garden in a battered brimmed hat, wearing long rubber gloves, a shirt and pants, and looking for all the world like a street urchin from some Charlie Chaplin silent film. The album is, of course, her story--the one she never told me--of her Chicago world just after the turn of the last century. There are young boys with bikes and girls with flowers, girls doing headstands and boys strutting their stuff, friends lined up arm-in-arm, college students in their toques, and adults who, in their formality, look to be from yet another century. All unknown to me, all lost to whatever lies beneath history, beyond memory.
Still, one thing is unmistakable: this is a record book of dreams and memories. There are her recital cards and yearly marks (E for "accuracy," "rhythm," "theory and hearing") from the Caruthers School of Piano; a "senior ticket" to Hyde Park High School's Junior Prom (which took place at 8 pm on March 22 sometime in the early 1920s); there is Camp Wewan-eeta's brochure, its cover autographed in a now faded hand by camp co-director Eva Radzinski ("Hope we may have the joy of having dear Irma with us again this year") and just inside is the camp song, the first of whose many verses is,
I love Wewan-eeta,
Just think what we do.
There is weaving, tennis, quoits,
And we're good marksmen, too.
Above all, there are the drawings of a girl who, from an early age, dreamed of becoming a commercial artist and, some two decades later, in World War II newspaper ads offering portraits in return for war-bond purchases, would be identified as "New York's Girl Caricaturist." There's her first published sketch, a playbill cover for a high school production of "The Two Vagabonds," with a tiny "Irma Selz" signature snuck in at page bottom. And there's her first appearance in a newspaper, the Chicago Daily Tribune, on April 24, 1924, in a comic strip called "Harold Teen," evidently about a young flapper and her boyfriend.
The middle box of the strip offers possible hairdos for the flapper ("the mop," "pineapple bob," "Sandwich Isle shingle," and "Anita Loos," among others) with a tagline, "from sketches by Irma Madelon Selz," who must then have been about 17 years old. Of "Madelon," which was not her middle name, I know a little something, for even half a century later my mother still found it more beautiful than her actual "Madeline," and still wished her parents, about whom I know almost nothing, had bestowed it on her.
If you hold such an album--and somewhere in most houses one certainly exists--it is hardly possible not to feel the sadness of loss. This single album is, after all, what's left of the early part of my mother's life. It's a story, wish, fantasy, organized, edited, and summarized almost wordlessly by her, and yet no matter how gently you hold the pages, there is no way to prevent the photos from cracking off into the margins, leaving only bits of dried glue behind, while placed on any surface it promptly sheds a tiny residue of black paper ashes.
One could, of course, simply experience this as a kind of pathos--and so fill the emotional space it creates with nostalgia for a lost world. But in the disintegration of such everyday documents, packed away on the top shelves of closets or in bottom drawers, in boxes or garbage bags, worn attache cases or old suitcases, attics, basements, or garages, there is also an everyday fierceness that we seldom consider.
It's the fierceness of death, and of everything that's lost to us all the time, everything the brain, even a well-functioning one, is incapable of holding. It's the sense of, I think, borrowed time in this world, on this planet. It's everything that, like that face inside mine, remains difficult to swallow. But above all, it's the brief span of our lives, as ephemeral as any set of digital photos.