The best resolution for the new year could be the easiest and most rewarding to keep. Sit down for an hour every now and then to talk with your grandparent or older friend. Ask questions. And listen. Encourage them to remember, What was it like when? Get them to tell stories, and share history.
And then reflect about your own old age and stories you’ll share: “ There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them,” as the Roman philosopher Seneca prophesized more than two thousand years ago.
Here’s some of what I learned — alternately shocking, educational and entertaining, often inspiring, some downright hilarious — by keeping my 2019 resolution to learn history firsthand. Typically, strife, survival and simple pleasures are common themes. So is the case with my Detroit born-and-raised in-laws, Rose and Ron, both in their mid-eighties:
SHOCKING: Leather football helmets. It sounds like an oxymoron in this day and age of concussions and serious head injuries, starting in high school. Ron recalled, “One time I got hit in the head so hard I got up and wobbled into the other team’s huddle. My coach saw fit to take me out and sit me down … for one play.”
EDUCATIONAL: 8-Mile, the Detroit street made famous by Eminem rapping about the now decrepit neighborhood of his youth, used to be the edge of town and the start of the forest. An isolated home out there was where Rose’s grandfather, a reputed moonshiner and paranoid distruster of banks, hid his money in a coffee can in a hole beneath the floorboards. It was only after his death that the suspected treasure was unearthed by a determined family search party.
ENTERTAINING: In the forties, Ron was a “pinboy,” a popular job for young kids — those who didn’t have newspaper routes. “We’d straddle the rail above and behind the bowling pins, careful to dodge stray pins. Then, between rolls and frames, we’d crawl down frantically to clear or reset the heavy wooden pins.”
INSPIRING: When Rose informed her parents that she was going to become a nurse, her father was against it, believing the job was for nuns … and prostitutes(?). That dated reputation changed as Rose and her generation of nurses brought commitment and specialized skills to the profession.
HILARIOUS: Back in the day, there was a neighborhood bar on every corner and they were remarkably family-friendly. So friendly that bar owners would string clotheslines in the back room, so the parents of infants could rinse and hang wet diapers. This was before disposables … and health inspectors. Best, though, this handy provision provided time for any patron who accepted the challenge to guzzle a 64-ounce, fishbowl-shaped “boomba” of Schlitz.
IN THE FUTURE: It’s hard to imagine what the next generation will find amazing about their ancestors. But hopefully they’ll be curious enough to want to find out.