Sara's Column: History comes alive through the people who lived it

My grandfather would have been 105 years old Saturday. When he passed away two years ago, it felt like the end of an era – and in a way, it was. I didn’t see him as often as I would have liked – daily life always seemed to supersede the trek from Tennessee to New Y...
May 16, 2013

My grandfather would have been 105 years old Saturday.

When he passed away two years ago, it felt like the end of an era – and in a way, it was.

I didn’t see him as often as I would have liked – daily life always seemed to supersede the trek from Tennessee to New York’s Long Island – but every time I saw him, I relished his tales.

As the son of Irish immigrants, my grandfather was born in an Irish neighborhood of New York City’s Bronx in 1908. He married a neighborhood girl and raised a family, never straying too far from the city.

He liked to regale me with stories of these new inventions called “cars” competing with horse-drawn carriages on the streets of New York. The city had just opened its first subway four years before his birth.

Some of his childhood neighbors likely lost family members when the Titanic sank. He was nearly four years old at the time.

He lived through nearly a half-dozen wars, including two world wars, plus the Great Depression and the Cold War.

He saw the birth of radio and television. He saw women fighting for suffrage.

It still amazes me the changes he lived through in his lifetime.

History came alive to me through my grandfather. He was a living, breathing link connecting me to events and a way of life that I had previously just known through textbooks, novels and grainy black-and-white photographs.

When he passed away, I didn’t just mourn the grandfather I loved, I mourned a severed thread connecting the past with the present.

Books can convey just so much; a person gets that faraway look in his eyes, and you can almost imagine the scene playing in his head as he relives the sights, the sounds and the smells.

Books are a bland substitute for a person who’s lived a full life.

So stop and listen.

When your grandmother launches into a recollection of that funny thing that happened when she was a child, don’t tune out. Pay attention. Imagine. Dig for more. Ask her if she remembers what she was doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated – or when she learned the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb in Japan. Ask her what people actually thought about it and how they acted.

And then listen some more.

I think many times we take our older generations for granted – to both their detriment and to ours. We grew up hearing them tell their stories, often over and over.

When we hear the familiar refrains begin, we usually know what’s coming.

And then we smile politely, nod and begin mentally drawing up a grocery-shopping list.

I’m guilty. I’ve done it.

But the day I started asking questions, a whole new world opened up and I gained a profound respect for what it must be like to live through so many drastic changes in society, technology and simple daily life.

You can take all the history classes you want, but nothing can make it come alive like talking to someone who lived it.

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