Time is hard to think about. It won't hold still when you want it to.
Seventeen years ago to me is a lot shorter than 17 years ago to someone who is 16, or 18, or 20. And yet our memories don't necessarily begin with our own lives. The Second World War has always seemed a very real time to me, a part of my memory, life, consciousness, even though I was born five years after the war ended. True, my memories of that war are very different from the memories of the people who when I was born were the age I am now. My mother, for instance. But still.
And I also have dim but important memories of the First World War. So it puzzles me when I meet people 16 or 20 for whom the war in Vietnam is too long ago for memories or for being part of their lives. But then, I know people my own age who feel (or don't feel) the same way about World War II.
It does seem strange.
Is 100 years a long time? My father lived to be 42, less than half a hundred. He died in 1961. How many fathers of 11-year-old daughters died in that year, I wonder? Or on that day, October 8.
On October 8, 1861 there was a war going on of which I have no memories. The Gatling gun was invented that year. Although the last Russian serfs were emancipated in March, they still used wooden plows. And were hungry. And died. More than a third of the ten million people in the souhtern United States were slaves. France was at war in Cochin-China.
And the University of Washington was founded in 1861. I'm a secretary there now. So in a way, the tedious paperwork I do every day has roots more than 100 years long.
On October 8, 1871 the Chicago Fire began. I began in Chicago, too. Whether I, like the Fire, will die in Chicago is not yet known.
The year of my birth was the birthyear of: Orlon, the Korean War, Smokey the Bear as the symbol of fire protection, the McCarran "Control of Communists" Act, Miss Clairol hair coloring, the first elevators with self-opening doors, the Diners Club, the first Xerox copier, the first Sony tape recorder, the first wide-spread use of cyclamates and sucaryl as artificial sweeteners, the U.S. H-bomb program, and Sugar Pops cereal. With my birth off-setting -- statistically, if not culturally -- the death that year of George Bernard Shaw, the world's population was estimated to be 2.52 billion. The United States was supplying arms to the Vietnamese government in Saigon, a fact which later became fairly significant for me. It took somewhat longer, but news of the birth that same year of protests against apartheid in South Africa also reached me eventually.
Does any of this make any difference? Is it significant that labor organizer and song writer Joe Hill was executed the year my mother was born? I've sung his songs all my life. Also in that year, 1.75 million Armenians were forcibly deported by Turkey; at least 600,000 of them subsequently died of starvation in the desert. The first telephone service between New York and San Francisco was inaugerated. The "Great War" raged in Europe. And U.S. interests owned 40% of Cuba's sugar production, not to mention all of Haiti's.
Four years later, as the U.S. government fought to overthrown the new revolutionary government of the U.S.S.R., my father was born. Bread was rationed in Vienna that winter: four ounces per person per week. In July, 38 people were killed in Chicago (again, Chicago) in one of the year's 26 U.S. race riots. The League of Nations was founded. Rosa Luxemburg was killed. And Rumania invaded Hungary.
Thirty-six years later, my father and mother (and I) were in Vienna trying to help Hungarian refugees fleeing the collapse of their attempted revolution against the Russian government the U.S. failed to overthrow 36 years earlier.
Next year I will be 36 years old.
The Greensboro lunchcounter sit-ins began when I was ten. Is ten years a long time? During those years I learned to sit up, to crawl, to walk, talk, feed myself, dress, tie my shoes, ride a bike, play jacks, jump rope, read, write, add and subtract. And I learned all the best playing areas in the five different towns my family lived in. It was a busy 3,650 days, 1950 to 1960. But meanwhile, in North Carolina the lunchcounters were segregated in 1950, and they were still segregated ten years later.
On October 8, 1960 my father had one year to live. Exactly one month into that year, John F. Kennedy as elected President of the United States. It had been President Eisenhower up till then, as far as I was concerned. Truman, who was President when I was born, had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. His name was never mentioned in our house except grimly, with a slow shake of the head that condemned him to the realm of things beyond human comprehension. Although my father never bombed anyone, he died 11 years before Truman did. Is that fair?
Woodrow Wilson was President when my father was born, and Wilson was already five years old when the Civil War began. Can I understand what that means? When my father was born, the President of the United States had begun his live in a slavery nation. My father is not old. He's dead, but he's not really old. And yet, he is that close to slavery, which has seemed to me so very long ago.
It's strange: a press release issued by the University of Minnesota Faculty Senate in 1969, on the occasion of the death of my father's father, describes Grandpa's career in laudatory terms and then concludes: "There are no immediate survivors." Oh no? As far as I can remember, I was a survivor in 1969. I was alive, anyway. But that doesn't count, apparently. That's not immediate enough. By those rules, it's true that slavery was a long time ago. There are no immediate survivors. But only by those rules.
From the official beginning to the official ending of slavery in the United States was 215 years. Not until the year 2080 will we have been as long without slavery as we were with it. I will be 130 years old then. Or dead.
Have I mentioned that Richard J. Daly signed my birth certificate? He was County Clerk in Chicago at that time. Eighteen years later he was the Mayor of Chicago when the Democratic Convention was held there, and he sent his police troops into battle on the homefront of the Vietnam War. I wound up charged with aggravated battery and had to go to court. In the hall outside the courtroom, one of the police I was accused of battering came up to me and said, "You any relation to Ed Meyerding?" That's my dad, I said. The cop nodded in a satisfied, thought-so kind of way.
We had left Chicago almost 14 years before, and my father had been dead for half that time. But still he was remembered by the Chicago police as...what? A trouble-maker, I suppose. He worked in the Chicago ACLU office, and there was a lot going on. Well, it's nice to be remembered, I guess. And in that case, at least, I immediately suvived.
It's amazing anything ever gets done, when you come to think about it. We say time "goes by," but that's not really true. It can't go by, because we're in the way. All my life I've felt time wrinkling up against me.
In Guatemala, each village has a traditional pattern they weave into their cloth. The distinctive pattern of our North American culture is woven into our time instead. Nine to five. Monday through Friday. Lunch from 12 to one. Eight to ten is prime time. Saturday night's the night to party. School starts in September. Stuff like that. And stuff like eating dinner at 5:30 or 6:00 instead of 8:00, 9:00, or 10:00 as in much of the world. Some things change. For instance, most clericals I know actually start work at eight, and no store's hours are 9-5 anymore. But 9 to 5 is still what sounds standard. It's woven into the culture.
Sometimes, though, people stay still in time and get covered, buried in drifts of years. Lost in it. Christa Wolf puzzled through her own past in Nazi Germany, confronting the loss of memory common among other Nazi-era Germans: "Is remembering tied to action? It would explain their loss of memory, for they didn't act....they didn't act and [they] immediately forgot their non-actions -- sleepers who didn't want to wake up -- though they remembered the measured excitements meted out to them."
As I read those words again, a picture in my mind shows millions sitting out a war watching "Gilligan's Island." There are people in my life who can tell story after story from that show. Or from "Leave It to Beaver." I wonder what else they can remember. And how much can we not remember? How much have we lost because we did not act and so we have nothing our memories can be tied to? That time is lost to us.
Seven Octobers after my father died, a bunch of people got arrested at the Pentagon. In the morning, everyone under 18 was let go. We didn't have to do any time, because we didn't have enough of it. Captured, measured, our time was judged to be below standard. So we were thrown back into the stream.
Isn't that strange?
A character -- a blocked, stalled, frustrated writer -- in a novel by Carmen Martin Gaite thought a lot about time, too. At one point he concludes that "night and day are only words on papers that neither shelter crickets nor exhale dew nor call forth bats or larks as messengers of fear and hope; they are no more than bureaucratic contrivances."
He is saying: when we stop acting, time, in a sense, stops, too. It stops meaning. It may wrinkle up agaisnt us and overwhelm us with its weight, but it has no texture, no message, no meaning woven into its design. It leaves us no memories.
I know how that feels. When I stop, I spend a lot of time re-reading old beginnings, as Martin Gaite's character does: "...like returning to annoint an old corpse with the customary balms so it won't rot away altogether."
Pieces of me are stuck in time like that, have died in time. For some of the pieces I could carve tombstones giving the date of death. October 8, 1961, for example. And August 6, 1945. Others are less easily or less precisely dated.
Only when I am able to act am I able to participate in that time which shelters crickets and breathes out dew. And that time is marked for me not by tombstones but by coincidences.
I love coincidences. They are so alive.