“Do you happen to know the year when your father was born?” I asked my mother the other day.
“No, I don’t,” she said after a moment’s thought. We then spent the next half-hour sifting through various stacks of papers in a vain attempt to pin down the date. My guess, though, is that he must have been born some time around 1900, since my mother, the fourth of six siblings, was born in 1929.
Here are some other things that happened in 1900:
• William McKinley was elected to a second term as president of the United States. (He beat William Jennings Bryan.)
• Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Sullivan died.
• Aaron Copland and the Ayatollah Khomeini were born.
• Carrie Nation smashed up twenty-five saloons.
• Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams.
• Joseph Conrad published Lord Jim.
• Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca was premiered in Rome.
• Kodak introduced the Brownie, the first hand-held camera.
• Construction began on the New York subway system.
My mother’s life, in short, is a bridge between two profoundly, almost unimaginably different worlds. A child of the Great Depression, she was raised on a farm and baptized in a river, and has lived long enough to watch me talk on a computer screen, though she’s never owned a computer of her own. Cake mixes and air conditioning are more her speed. The most recent inventions of any significance that she embraced wholeheartedly were the answering machine, the ATM, and the VCR. (She has a DVD player but never uses it.)
I suppose we all reach a moment in our lives when we lose interest in the new, and I suspect that moment comes sooner for technology than for art. For now I seem to be staying fairly open to new things–my experience as a blogger suggests as much–but I have yet to send my first text message, nor does my somewhat superannuated cellphone contain a digital camera. On the increasingly rare occasions when I feel the need to take a picture of something, I buy a disposable film camera, the postmodern equivalent of a Brownie, at the corner drugstore.
I have, alas, no children to take pictures of, but I do have a nineteen-year-old niece, and I wonder whether her offspring (assuming that she has children and that my life overlaps with theirs) will be no less bemused to recall that they once met a man who was born in the same year that Elvis Presley recorded “Heartbreak Hotel.” Somehow I doubt it, and it’s by no means certain that they’ll remember anything about me at all. My mother’s father, after all, died when I was six years old, and I have only the vaguest and most shadowy memories of him. He played the banjo, but I never saw him do so, nor do I remember the sound of his voice. I wish I did, for my mother loved him very much and still speaks of him with a warmth undiminished by the passage of time.
Philip Larkin wrote a poem called An Arundel Tomb that reflects on such memories, and its last line often comes to my mind now that I’m middle-aged:What will survive of us is love. That is all that survives of Albert Crosno, my banjo-playing maternal grandfather: love, three living children, and a few faded photographs. I can think of worse legacies.