WHAT’S PAST

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When we think about the past — especially a past that precedes our own personal past — we tend to think of it the way it looks in jerky old newsreels. Or in black and white photos now fading to gray, or in brownish sepia prints from the pre-World War II rotogravure.

The costumes in the photos and newsreels are funny-looking, too. Who in his or her right mind could possibly put on all that, day after day? And the artifacts of life — the high manual typewriters with round noisy keys, the brown wood living-room radios around which people gathered in the evenings, black telephones with white dials attached to a phone jack, Western Union telegrams for sending urgent messages out of town, bathtubs on legs, cotton sheets that had to be ironed, rumble seats on the back of coupes — they all look like props for a movie. Oh, and the voices and music on the old records, even where digitally restored as well as possible — they’re so dim and scratchy.  Were those real people making those sounds, real like you and me?

The very young even assume those of us who are considerably older can’t possibly understand anything about their high-speed world, the one that’s on the screen right now, because our slower world is gone and we’re not so quick on the uptake with the new iPhone6.  (From their point of view, we’re hanging around almost by sufferance; we have to be good, and quiet, and stay out of their multitasking way.) How can we possibly know anything about anything? There were no television sets, no cell phones, no email, no texting in our world.  No air-conditioning in the hot damp city summers.  No Salk vaccine to hold off polio. Letters  took two or three days to reach their destination, Food was seasonal. Refrigerators were small with virtually nonexistent freezer compartments. Contraception was iffy, abortions illegal, without anesthesia and sometimes on kitchen tables. (I’m writing off the top of my head here.This is not a reasoned or philosophical disquisition.) There were also so many other things that were different — great big life-extinguishing things, too many and profound to list completely —  like no unemployment insurance, no health insurance, no social security, no economic or racial or religious or ethnic equality.

So how can we — let alone the young — believe a fading memory of an uncomfortable, often painful, world that’s gone still has relevance today? How can we believe the sky was as blue then as it is now (when it is), or the touch of another’s hand as exciting, or calming, or comforting?

It’s even easier to think patronizing thoughts about this past when you consider how little it once cost to live.  It’s like looking backwards through reverse binoculars and seeing everything shrunk to doll size.  As you may know, I’ve lately been trying to write a longish piece about the year between my sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays.  That was in 1947-48. I thought I remembered a lot. I don’t.  I still know a stamp used to cost three cents, and a subway ride a nickel.  But memory has failed on so much we all take for granted (and therefore make no effort to remember) that I’ve had to fall back on the internet.

I therefore just learned again what I probably once knew:  that in 1947 America, a car cost $1,500, gasoline was 23 cents a gallon,  cigarettes were 20 cents a pack, you could buy a house for $13,000, a loaf of bread for 12 cents, and a gallon of milk for 80 cents.  In 1947, the federal minimum wage was 40 cents an hour and the average annual salary $3,500. Those weren’t doll-size numbers then. My own father earned $100 a week when he worked, but he was able to find work only for half the weeks of the year, so he saved $50 every week he was paid, and the three of us lived on the other $50.  This worked out to less than the statistically average American annual salary. Yet I always had decent clothes and good shoes, and new books and records for Christmas and my birthday, and even piano lessons, for which I practiced on a brand new $1,000 Steinway baby grand my father paid off in installments until it was ours. I didn’t feel deprived at all, until I began to dream of expensive colleges beyond our reach.

[There’s probably a good think piece to be written by someone else on what these numbers tell us about inflation. Raise the wage floor and you have to raise wages throughout the organization so that people earning more than the minimum wage go on earning proportionately more. But that eats into profit, so the employer raises prices, the minimum wage eventually becomes inadequate again, and there we go, up up up and away ….. But that’s not a piece I can write, because I have no idea what to do about it.]

This piece though — the one I ‘m posting today — started out as a sort of progress report on where I am with writing “The Practice Boyfriend.” It seems to have become something else. Not about inflation, but not about how far along I am with the longish piece, either. That’s because lying in bed in the morning thinking about this now long-ago part of my life has not only generated lists of things to research when I’m fully awake, but also brought up out of my own subterranean depths thoughts and feelings so much still alive (blue sky, comforting touch and all) that I categorically reject the notion the past is valueless because it has a quaint set design. Much of what reposes deep inside the aging heart remains so meaningful to what life is all about that it seems a shame to send it off to dead storage.  Time enough for that when those of us who still remember no longer can.  Until then, let’s write about it — so it can go on living a little longer through our words.

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18 thoughts on “WHAT’S PAST

  1. I think each generation has a hard time imagining life without the “necessities” they’ve come to expect. When I was young, a world without TV, cars, airplanes, and, of course, the social, scientific and medical advances that came before my time, was difficult to picture. It wasn’t until I was older that I was able to grasp the enormous debt my, and every generation, owes the ones that came before. They didn’t get everything right (nor did we) but for the most part, we seem to move forward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for pointing out that social progress rests on the achievements of the past. That wasn’t so much what I was driving at (mine being more the touchy-feely approach to life), but your comment is a valuable one. (Although you don’t look nearly old enough in your avatar picture to be making it!)

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  2. This post brings a lot of memories back… and more important, it stimulates thought about what really matters in our lives, regardless of age. My memories include a time when there weren’t any TVs or refrigerators. But if certain things seem silly or ridiculous in the eyes of the young… like clothing fashions or even national or religious ceremonies, we can begin to formulate new standards and values that have more essential meaning in our lives. It would be a shame if we were to find satisfaction in new contraptions without working to improve the very essence of living life. And it seems to me that your thoughts in this post could lead to such a philosophical examination. Looking forward to the continuation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m afraid the “continuation” may disappoint you, Shimon. I’m not much of a philosopher. My approach to what brings essential meaning to living — and on what that it is I think at this point in our respective lives we would agree — is to write stories, literally true and therefore “memoir,” or slightly made up, although based on experience. Perhaps that’s my way of illustrating what I think is important. I can’t philosophize about it, but I can try to show how we mess up, or hurt each other, or don’t realize what we had until too late.

      This is a very serious kickoff to 2015. It must have something to do with getting old. 😀

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  3. Your post brought a recent event to my mind. The son of a dear friend got married. It was beautiful except that the groom (and most of the groomsmen) had that 4 o’clock shadow that is so popular with male celebrities. To someone like me, it was “ungroomed.” I couldn’t help but comment to my friend (hopefully more in surprise than in a judgmental way but who am I kidding?) She said the he looks so young when he is fresh shaven. Why is it wrong to look like at 25 year old? I am sure their children will laugh hysterically just as he does at his parent’s wedding picture with the mutton chop side burns, big hair and puffy sleeves! As for the “old days,” I often long for them because despite the lack of luxuries, I miss my parents and long gone relatives and the relatively carefree time. Perhaps that’s a statement that the luxuries aren’t as important as the people.

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  4. Martin Pooley

    Very interesting topic but where does the “past” stop and the living present begin? Last summer, two days prior to the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we visited that area of Normandy. It was awash with re-enactors in WWII uniforms, driving WWII vehicles and some were even staying in WWII-type encampments. This gave my wife and I slightly uneasy feelings. Although we are both baby-boomers we regard that period as living history. To recreate either the English or the American Civil Wars is fine but WWII is still living history. We felt we were looking at ghosts.

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    • Good question, Martin. We can all pretty much agree on a historic past that took place long before anyone still alive was born. However the more recent “past” is relative to each person. Since you identify yourself and your wife as baby boomers, you were born at some point after WWII ended, so for you two that war is the recent past, but still the “past.” By contrast, I was 14 in 1945, only slightly too young to join the WACs, and if I close my eyes, that period of time can come up from memory as if (to use your term) “the living present.” Not only do I remember the newspaper headlines. The first man I went out with was a WW II vet. So was a brother-in-law later on, and a man I worked for in the ’60s. But otherwise, I don’t understand what you mean by “the living present.” Those re-enacters are not bringing anything “past” back to life, whether it’s a Civil or a Revolutionary War or the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. What you were seeing last summer were not ghosts but big children in the present playing games — not with toy soldiers but with very expensive costumes and simulated war equipment, and on ground where real battles were once fought. But there’s nothing “present” — much less “living” present — about it except whatever fun they may have been having, whether with authentically copied eighteenth and nineteenth century “rifles” and “bayonets” or twentieth century “cannon” or fake bombs. I’m surprised the relevant Normandy prefecture issues licenses to conduct this kind of foolishness on ground soaked with blood spilled on behalf of France. But I suppose the re-enactment brings profit to the region, and money talks, as it always has, even in the “past.” Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  5. Reblogged this on Old Enough To Smile Through The Pain and commented:
    Let me introduce you to NINA MISHKIN, one of the best writers not afraid to blog about aging. In fact, her blog is called “The Getting Old Blog.” Can’t get much more straight forward than that? And the subtitle should be the mission statement for my life: “About Enjoying the Good Things In Life Before It’s Too Late . . . And Dealing With The Rest Of It.” This particular post is all about “The Past.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh John, let me repeat here what I wrote in reply on your blog: How could I not “like” this post? Thank you so much for the very kind words.

      And now let’s all hurry over to your new blog (only five posts old) for your own thoughts on — in your case — getting older. I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting read! 🙂

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      • Thanks so much Nina. I look forward to compiling a bloglist of like-minded bloggers.

        Ain’t technology wonderful? Spellcheck is a great invention, but autocorrect is a nightmare. In the above sentence, autocorrect changed “bloglist” to “bloodlust.” Thankfully I caught it and corrected it. There it goes again. It tried to change “caught” to “bought.” I have to figure out how to turn this autocorrect off.

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  6. Love, love, love this post. I am all about writing in retro style. It is some of my favorite type and I seem to get a lot of views when I do. The past is relevant and it always will be. The touching way you build on your story draws me into your world. Thanks for that. Below is a great quote from your writing:
    “Much of what reposes deep inside the aging heart remains so meaningful to what life is all about that it seems a shame to send it off to dead storage.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not sure what you mean by writing in “retro” style. Surely you don’t mean writing in the style of Charles Dickens or Thackeray? As for writing about my past, most of my life is now past. What else would I be writing about? But thank you, thank you, thank you for your appreciation — especially of the passage you quoted. (I liked it very much too, even though I was the one who wrote it.) You’re turning into a one-woman fan club all by yourself! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nina,
        I like your writing very much. haha What I mean by retro or throwback is basically lingo I see on face book I suppose. It is basically writing from things from the past. I love that kind of writing. I also love movies that go back in time…Just my kind of style. Keep it coming.

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