Pausing History for a Day

In the way that notions are stirred into the culture, like pollen dissipating into the air, the Tolstoyan view of individuals’ cumulative construction of history has been working its way again through the world of commentary. Our lives go on, and history follows.
It occurred to me, looking at four generations of my family at the table, today, that when my son is my grandfather’s current age, one hundred and seventy-two years will have passed from my grandfather’s birth. Day in, day out, roaring, depression, war, apotheosis, counterculture, war, scandal, stagflation, conservative revolution, vacation from history, terrorism, war, malaise, familiar change… and on into the future. Yet the family albums tell what seems to be a repeated story in different costumes — mother, father, child, crib, tricycle, bicycle, graduation, marriage, child.
I’d never noticed before today the clear familial resemblance of my grandfather and his sons. They’re all slender, now, and traced in visits and pictures they’d been out of sync through phases of weight and shape. The well-filled father with the football-player son. The heavy ex-football-player with the Marine brother. I’d also never noticed how much the sister born between them looked like the eldest of us cousins, after me, because she passed away before I’d learned to observe such things.
Someday, my children will find it strange that I can name unknown faces in family photographs. Someday, too, they’ll chuckle at the old style of cars and of hair. Perhaps they’ll feel that sense of awe when they align the pictures chronologically with their history lessons. Yes, we lived through that — I was in this particular place on that historic day because I was only working part-time from home then, I remember — but it was just life unfolding.
We’ll say, “That was the year that such and such happened.” But when we talk about life, we’ll put it differently: “I was about your age when I lost my job, and I was your mother’s age when I finally began digging my way out of debt.” In the long view, it’s more about those moments of tying it all together than the years of winding threads.
So, among all the reasons that we have to be thankful today — and there are many — we should include the opportunity to pause. We’ll be back to making history unravel soon enough; for a moment in time, we should appreciate that our lives are cumulative constructions, too.
Happy Thanksgiving.

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